Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas is a man known for his outspoken views. Even so, when asked if he preferred Nabil Fekir to Neymar and he replied in favour of the former, it was a comment that raised eyebrows.
That said, the France international has played arguably a more important role for OL this season than the Brazilian superstar has at Paris Saint-Germain. While Neymar can count on a supporting cast including world-class talent such as Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe, it is Fekir’s responsibility to carry an exceptionally young Lyon side.
Never will his role be more important than during Sunday’s meeting between the clubs at Parc OL.
No longer does he have Alexandre Lacazette, now of Arsenal, to fall back on, yet he leads the way for Lyon in terms of Ligue 1 goals this season with 15 in 18 appearances – an outstanding tally for a player who is by no means a centre forward.
Fekir’s versatility this season has been priceless. At times he has played as a central midfielder in a three, while at others he has been stationed on the wing or even occasionally as a false 9.
He may only have three assists to his name, but that scarcely does credit to how integral he is to Lyon’s build-up work.
In the midweek victory over Guingamp, when Lyon powered to a 2-0 victory, he was apparently ubiquitous, popping up in several different roles. Indeed, he had so much freedom, the Breton side did not know how to mark him and consequently he dominated the match.
At times, he was so influential it was too easy; he had a habit of overdoing things as a result. On one occasion, he attempted a pass to Mariano Diaz simply because it would have made a goal – had it arrived – more aesthetically pleasing. In reality, he was better placed to take a shot.
No such luxuries can be afforded on Sunday.
Yet, it is impressive to see how far he has come when his career might have been decimated by a serious knee ligament injury sustained on the occasion of his first international start for France against Portugal in September 2015.
Somewhat inevitable, given the stall this issue gave to his professional aspirations, his career is often talked of in terms of pre and post-injury Fekir.
After eight months out of the game, it took him a long period before he was back to his absolute best, but though he might lack the extreme acceleration that he once possessed, he has made up for it with technique, vision and execution.
“He’s done a lot of work to get back to his level,” France boss Didier Deschamps said earlier this season, pointing to the fresh responsibility of captaincy as having helped him grow.
“The fact that he has more responsibility in Lyon is not a bad thing as it has allowed him to open up more.
“From what I’ve seen since the beginning of the season, this is the Nabil before his injury.”
The player, meanwhile, concurs.
“I’ve improved my volume of play, I’m making more effort than before,” he confirmed on Friday. “That’s not to say that before I wasn’t capable, but maybe the armband has given me a desire to do more to work harder for my team-mates.
That nutmeg, though.
Nabil Fekir is the French top scorer in Europe’s top five leagues after netting his 14th Ligue 1 goal to draw Lyon level with Angers. 1-1. 🇫🇷#OLSCOpic.twitter.com/wwh9TnzWOH
— Goal (@goal) January 14, 2018
It was a bold move from coach Bruno Genesio to give the 24-year-old the armband, given their strained history, but Lyon now rely on their captain more than any other individual in the recent past.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a new Nabil Fekir – it’s the one we knew before his injury but with more maturity,” Genesio said. “He’s made every effort to bounce back.
“He’s physically well, better in his head and has regained his best level. Since the start of the season, I feel he’s been completely focussed on the team. If I entrusted him to be captain, it’s because he’s been exemplary on the field and with his behaviour.”
Of course, he has not been without his faults, sparking a riot during the derby as he provoked Saint-Etienne’s fans by holding his shirt up to them after scoring to make it 5-0, having previously insulted OL’s local rivals in the build up to the game.
In the aftermath, he was victim of a challenge that was a virtual assault from Leo Lacroix, leading Aulas to grumble on Twitter about the “dramatic aggressiveness” of Saint-Etienne and the “heroic” actions of Fekir.
While that may have ignited fury on the banks of the Loire, back on the side of the Rhone, it served only to enhance the No.10’s cult status and provided an iconic moment in a campaign that has also seen him score from the halfway line with his weaker foot.
But while his president has previously said there is a “strong chance” of Fekir staying another year in Lyon, the giants are circling. Manchester City, Arsenal and Barcelona have all been linked with him, and he will not quell the rumours.
“Spain makes me dream: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid. Those are great clubs. But there is also England, with Manchester City and Arsenal,” he told Telefoot.
“Is this my last season at Lyon? I don’t know what the future holds for me. I’ve still got two years left on my contract. So, I’m still Lyonnais.”
In a league in which the star names are monopolised by PSG, Fekir is a rare example of a figure elsewhere who could seamlessly mingle into such company.
On Sunday, he will have another chance to prove it.