Football Features

Christopher Nkunku hits special milestone to send RB Leipzig into first Europa League semi-final

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 20:40, 14 April 2022 | Updated: 12:28, 25 August 2022

RB Leipzig are looking forward to playing in their first Europa League semi-final after running out 0-2 winners at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia against Atalanta this evening.

Domenico Tedesco’s men came into today’s meeting having drawn 1-1 in the opening leg, with history against Die Roten Bullen, talismanic figure Christopher Nkunku ultimately decided the contest with a brace. It was his ninth and tenth goals in European competition this season. The 24-year-old forward had previously netted seven times across six Champions League appearances before Leipzig dropped into the Europa League.

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Nkunku, a reported summer target of Manchester United understandably given the Ralf Rangnick connection, would net in the round of 32 home tie against Real Sociedad but that was his only attacking contribution for the Bundesliga outfit prior to converting a Konrad Laimer pass inside the penalty area. That was Laimer’s first assist in this competition — to go with his four in the Bundesliga this season — and he’s another being heavily linked with a Premier League move.

Losing both would be a heavy blow for Leipzig who are no strangers to losing key personnel on a yearly basis, though few teams are better equipped when it comes to recruiting and developing new stars, and then going again. In recents Nkunku and Laimer have shone even brightly: Nkunku’s last four appearances in all competitions has yielded three goals and three assists. As for Laimer it’s been two goals and three assists.

Truth be told, Nkunku is enjoying a campaign to remember, the much-wanted French international has now bagged 30 goals through 43 matches. He’s only the second Leipzig player to reach that milestone within a single campaign since the side’s Bundesliga promotion after Timo Werner in 2019/20 (34). Also, in a World Cup year, Didier Deschamps should be informed that only Karim Benzema (38) and Kylian Mbappe (31) are the only Frenchmen based in Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues to have outscored Nkunku in all competitions.

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Back to the game at hand, Laimer and Nkunku each attempted no fewer than three shots on goal, the joint-highest total for a Leipzig player in the Europa League this season. However the game’s biggest talking point came minutes into the second half when Atalanta felt they had earned a penalty after Dani Olmo looked to have handed the ball after charging down Ruslan Malinovskyi’s free-kick. A set-piece awarded for handball, which seemed generous on second viewing. But much to the dismay of Gian Piero Gasperini and his players, on-field referee Mateu Lahoz refused to award a spot-kick even after watching the images on the sideline monitor.

When it rains, it pours, La Dea had never lost a home match in the Europa League or UEFA Cup (eight wins and six draws), including qualifying, until tonight. Their dreams of progressing evaporated in the final minutes when Nkunku netted from 12 yards after winning the spotkick himself. That was the fifth time Leipzig had won a penalty in this season’s Europa League, which is more than any other team. The result also means Leipzig stretched their unbeaten streak in this competition to five matches, their longest such run since at least 2005/06. On this shadowing, Braga or Rangers have their work cut out for them, Tedesco also knows he’s got a special player on his hands.