With the summer transfer window about to get in full swing, clubs are starting the fight for Nicolas Pepe.
The Ivorian winger was in devastating form for Lille last season, scoring 22 goals and recording 11 assists to help his side finish second in Ligue 1.
Of course, as is the brutal reality for every team in France that isn’t Paris Saint-Germain, this form has brought inevitable links to some of Europe’s biggest giants, with a transfer rumoured to be certain this summer.
Even Lille’s chairman, Gerard Lopez, has resigned himself to losing his star man, admitting Pepe has moved into a financial territory his club just cannot compete with.
“It is certain, he will leave,” he said. “He has moved into a price range that we cannot afford anymore. There is a career choice to make for him, I think he will have the choice.”
So, with Lille already bracing themselves for Pepe’s departure, where could he end up? Which European Goliath will win the day and sign one of Ligue 1’s most exciting talents? We’ve taken a look.
Dream: Paris Saint-Germain
From Kylian Mbappe to Layvin Kurzawa, PSG love nothing more than to dip into the French market and effectively wipe out their competition.
Hell, Thomas Tuchel has already put out the bat signal in Pepe’s direction, talking up a transfer prior to PSG’s 5-1 defeat at the hands of Lille in April.
“Yes, he can play for us tomorrow,” the German told reporters. “He can play with us for 70 minutes and then [Angel] Di Maria can come on!
“Pepe has a lot of quality with his speed and strength. He’s determined around goal and always dangerous.
“I don’t know his character and personality, but he’s a good player.”
It’s become obvious that PSG need squad depth – just see Eric Choupo-Moting’s miss against Strasbourg for confirmation of that – and Pepe could easily be the extra option and turn of pace that would turn the Parisians from Champions League chumps to European elite.
Imagine a front three of Mbappe, Neymar and Pepe. A stuff of dreams.
If you want to pit yourself against the best players in the world, then La Liga is the place to be – and Barcelona probably the team to choose.
Ernesto Valverde’s men won La Liga relatively easy last season despite not looking too great on the pitch. But next year looks set to be a tougher challenge, with Real Madrid already spending big – bringing in Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Eder Militao and Rodrygo Goes.
So Barcelona need to be making moves of their own this summer. The Blaugrana are also being heavily linked with Antoine Griezmann, but as an alternative or supplement, what better player to bring in than Pepe.
The Ivorian could the key link Barcelona have been missing in their attack, with Philippe Coutinho failing to impress and Luis Suarez’s age catching up with him.
Pepe’s 33-goal contribution in Ligue 1 was only bettered in La Liga by Messi’s 49 (36 goals, 13 assists), and was seven more than Griezmann (15 goals, nine assists) managed at Atletico Madrid.
The Ivorian’s arrival at Barcelona could see Messi pushed back into a more central, or free, role, creating another iconic Blaugrana attacking trio with possibly Griezmann or another signing.
Squawka Suggests: Barcelona
If Nicolas Pepe wants to conquer Europe, his best chance would be by moving to Barcelona. Though PSG dominate Ligue 1, the French side are still some way off making real waves in the Champions League – and Pepe’s arrival there would not be enough on its own.
But by joining Barcelona, Pepe could be the missing piece of the puzzle for Champions League triumph. Had he been in Ousmane Dembele’s place in the dying stages of the semi-final first leg against Liverpool, Barcelona could have been taking a 4-0 lead to Anfield instead of the three-goal advantage they surrendered.
Hats must go off to Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool side for winning a sixth Champions League trophy, as well as going close to the Premier League title – losing by a point.
But despite the European triumph, Klopp’s side are still some way off Pep Guardiola’s in terms of squad depth.
Beyond Liverpool’s fearsome front three, their best options from the bench next season as it stands will be Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi. These are hardly the break glass options of Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez, are they?
Pepe would offer Klopp the same pace and filthy end product as the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, while his youth and quality would allow for much better squad rotation next season, meaning the Reds could once again go toe-to-toe with City, while still battling for the plethora of trophies up for grabs.
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Realistic: Bayern Munich
With both Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery on their way out, Bayern Munich are in serious need of new wingers.
The pair leave with a combined 268 career goals for Bayern Munich, and although both are pushing into the wrong end of their 30s, that attacking threat must be replaced if the Bavarians are to challenge for the Champions League once more.
Of course, Bayern do already have Serge Gnabry, whose reputation is now vastly improved since his failed Arsenal days, are being linked with Leroy Sane and splashed out a reported-£16.7m to bring 18-year-old Canadian winger Alphonso Davies from Vancouver Whitecaps in January.
However, despite Davies bagging his first Bundesliga goal against Mainz recently, he has still only managed 74 minutes of football for Bayern and is very much a diamond in the rough.
Niko Kovac needs an injection of pace and proven end product in one of Europe’s top leagues; Pepe offers that and then some. The Ivory Coast international is lightning fast, unstoppable when cutting inside from the right and his 33 direct goal contributions in 38 Ligue 1 games this term is quite frankly astonishing.
Pepe would go straight in, revitalising the Bayern attack, while he would also be getting the Champions League action every ambitious footballer craves.
Squawka Suggests: Bayern Munich
Bayern are in talks to sign Pepe, according to French outlet RMC, who also describe Liverpool as ‘well placed’ and claim a third ‘important’ club will soon make their interest known.
Should Pepe be forced to pick between the two named teams, Bayern may just be the better option, purely down to playing time. With the German champions looking to decrease the average age of their squad, 24-year-old Pepe will be a big focus on Niko Kovac’s side.
Whereas with Liverpool, Pepe would have to fight the now-legendary Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane for their places – after the pair helped the Reds win the Champions League.
Wildcard: Inter Milan
Another team being mentioned as interested in Nicolas Pepe is Serie A giants Inter Milan. The Nerazzurri confirmed their place in the Champions League on the final day of the Italian season, but will need to bolster their squad if they wish to avoid another group stage exit.
This summer, Inter are at risk of losing striker Mauro Icardi, with the Argentinian once again being linked with a move away due to reported unhappiness.
Though Pepe’s arrival would not directly replace Icardi regarding his position, the Ivorian more than makes up for the goals.
Last season, Icardi managed just 11 goals in Serie A – 15 off the league’s top scorer Fabio Quagliarella. Adding four assists, he was directly involved in 15 goals – more than any other Inter player. But this is less than half the tally achieved by Pepe in Ligue 1, with Inter lacking for goals last season – managing 57.
Combining Pepe with Ivan Perisic or Matteo Politano in support of Lautaro Martinez, and Inter could have an interesting side for next season.
Eden Hazard. The Lille-to-Chelsea route really doesn’t need any more validation than that.
After helping Lille take the 2010/11 Ligue 1 crown, the Belgian swanned off to London and spent the last seven years making Premier League defenders look stupid while winning a further two league titles along the way.
However, Hazard is Chelsea no more after confirming his move to Real Madrid leaving a massive hole in Chelsea’s armoury, regardless of whether Christian Pulisic hits the ground running or not.
So, who better to replace Lille’s former golden boy at Stamford Bridge than their current one? Pepe would fit Chelsea’s front three like a glove, adding that unpredictability that you simply don’t get from Willian nowadays, but with a great chance of smashing in all the goals and assists that Hazard does now.
This, of course, is all at the mercy of Chelsea’s upcoming transfer ban but should they win an appeal, this would be a no-brainer.
And, then there’s the fact Pepe has previously spoken of his dream to play for Chelsea.
Asked in an interview in April 2017, when at SCO Angers, about a potential move away from France, Pepe said: “Chelsea. It’s a club that makes me dream. It’s the only club in England that I would sign for.”
Squawka suggests: Chelsea
Should Chelsea beat the odds and have their transfer ban at least frozen for the summer, Pepe should realise his dream.
Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi provide far more realistic competition for Pepe than Mane and Salah, while the departure of Hazard leaves the Blues in need of a new talisman.
Pepe has spent the past two years in northern France being just that, why not now do it at Stamford Bridge?