SEASON REVIEW: Top 5 break-out Under-21 stars
Kylian Mbappé stole most of the headlines among young players in Ligue 1 Conforama this season, but the Paris Saint-Germain forward is not the only gifted player in the division still eligible for the youth leagues…
Nineteen-year-old Mbappé plundered 13 goals and eight assists as PSG wrapped up their seventh French top-flight title, and rightly won the UNFP Young Player of the Year award in May.
There is perhaps no other league in world football that gives youth the same chance as Ligue 1 Conforama, though, and Mbappé should have competition for individual accolades in the seasons to come if the following five players are anything to go by.
ligue.com casts its eye over the Top 5 break-out Under-21 stars in 2017-18…
1) Houssem Aouar
Club: Olympique Lyonnais
Position: Attacking midfielder
Nationality: France (U21 cap)/Algeria
Watch: The Ligue 1 Show met Aouar earlier this season!
Born in Lyon, Aouar was already regarded as a top prospect at the Groupama Stadium and was handed his debut in the 11-2 aggregate win over AZ Alkmaar in OL's run to the UEFA Europa League semi-finals last February at the age of 18, with his first professional goal coming in the second leg. Nonetheless, the France youth international was restricted to just five appearances in all competitions, with Mathieu Valbuena invariably the preferred option on the left of an attacking midfield.
Knowing they had Aouar waiting in the wings, Lyon allowed Valbuena to leave for Fenerbahce last summer, although Bertrand Traoré's arrival from Chelsea meant competition for places remained fierce. Coach Bruno Génésio gave a clue as to Aouar's coming important by handing him Juninho's No.8 shirt, though, and he proved up to the task of emulating the Brazilian club legend, having a direct hand in 11 goals in his 32 games, 27 of them starts. Only Memphis Depay, Nabil Fekir, Mariano Diaz and Traoré managed more, but they each started in a more advanced role than Aouar, the latest - and perhaps the best - in a long line of world class academy graduates at Lyon.
2) Nordi Mukiele
Club: Montpellier Hérault SC
Nationality: France (U21 cap)/DR Congo
Clean sheets: 13
Mukiele (l.) and Hilton (r.) - 20 years his senior - struck up a fine understanding in 2017-18.
A France Under-21 teammate of Aouar, Mukiele spent the latter half of last season at Montpellier after impressing in Domino's Ligue 2 with Stade Lavallois, despite Les Tangos ultimately finishing bottom of the division. Mukiele slotted straight into former coach Frédéric Hantz's team, featuring 16 times on the right of a back four, but La Paillade only escaped relegation by two points, and big things weren't necessarily expected this term.
Michel Der Zakarian replaced Hantz last summer and immediately put his stamp on the team, instituting a 3-4-1-2 formation where Hantz had preferred a 4-2-3-1. Mukiele might have expected to be turned into a wing-back, roaring up the right-hand side the way Jérôme Roussillon did on the opposite flank, but Der Zakarian had other ideas, playing him on the right of a back three, usually with Hilton and Daniel Congré alongside. Mukiele already had impressive physicality, but he added reading of the game to his repertoire, and Montpellier finished the season with the second-best defence in the division. Only champions PSG (29) conceded fewer than Montpellier's 33 goals, and 13 of Mukiele's 33 appearances resulted in a clean sheet.
3) Luiz Araujo
Position: Left winger
Watch: The best of Araujo's five goals, scored against Lyon
A promising left-footed attacker, Araujo made his Sao Paulo first team debut in the summer of 2016, although he struggled to dislodge Argentina winger Ricardo Centurion on his favoured left flank. Nonetheless, Marcelo Bielsa had the talented then 20-year-old at the top of his shopping list when he took charge of the northerners last May.
The wheels came off at LOSC under the Chilean coach with the club spending 22 weeks of the season just gone in the relegation places. The influx of new signings initially struggled to replace Girondins de Bordeaux-bound Nicolas de Préville's goals, and Bielsa was relieved of his duties in December. His successor Christophe Galtier steadied the ship, but he wouldn't have been able to do so without Araujo, who had a direct hand in eight goals - seven of them since the turn of the year - as Les Dogues ended the campaign with a five-point cushion on the drop zone.
4) Marcus Thuram
Club: EA Guingamp
Nationality: France (U20 cap)/Guadeloupe/Italy
Watch: Jimmy Briand and Thuram show off their fine understanding against Monaco!
The son of France '98 World Cup hero Lilian Thuram, Marcus could barely have asked for a better father against whom to hone his attacking talents in the back garden growing up. While he was two seasons past his senior debut with FC Sochaux-Montbéliard, the idea of junior scaling the same professional heights as senior in his career seemed fanciful at best.
Guingamp were convinced of Thuram's potential and signed him in the summer transfer window. Jimmy Briand was first-choice at the point of the Bretons' attack in Antoine Kombouaré's favoured 4-2-3-1, but Thuram still racked up 20 games - reinventing himself as a wide attacker - scoring three and assisting another. Thuram will hope to become more prolific in the coming seasons, but his hard running out wide helped Briand end the campaign as the club's top scorer with 11, while his own strike in the 3-1 win over AS Monaco in April showed a potentially hereditary flair for the big occasion.
5) Angelo Fulgini
Club: Angers SCO
Position: Right midfielder
Nationality: France (U21 cap)/Côte d'Ivoire/Italy
Unsung hero? Fulgini (l.) laid on two of Toko Ekambi's (r.) 17 goals in 2017-18.
Fulgini was a regular for Valenciennes FC in Domino's Ligue 2, starting more games than any player apart from goalkeeper Damien Perquis. A talented right-winger who managed six goals and two assists as Les Athéniens finished 14th, there were nonetheless suspicions that Ligue 1 Conforama might prove a difficult step up for the Côte d’Ivoire-born wide man when he left for Angers SCO.
Angers may have spent most of the season battling against relegation, but Fulgini's attacking output actually increased, with only Cameroon striker Karl Toko Ekambi - a rumoured target for English Premier League clubs - outdoing his haul of three goals and five assists. Born in Abidjan to a father of Italian descent and a New Caledonian mother, there could npw be a three-way battle for Fulgini's international future on the horizon.