Nicolas Pepe has the "natural talent" of the likes of Real Madrid superstar Karim Benzema and Bayern Munich duo Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, LOSC Lille boss Christophe Galtier has told The Ligue 1 Show.
Galtier was assistant coach to Alain Perrin when they guided Olympique Lyonnais to the last of their seven successive Ligue 1 Conforama titles in the 2007/08 season.
Benzema was breaking into the Lyon team at the time, a precocious teenager tipped for big things. Since, the France international has become one of the game's most complete forwards, winning the UEFA Champions League four times in addition to a host of other honours, while Robben and Ribery have been mainstays of Bayern's constant success for a decade.
Pepe is cut from the same high quality cloth, says Galtier.
"I was lucky enough to work with Karim Benzema at Lyon. He was much younger. Karim is a natural talent. But Nicolas is also a natural talent, yes," the Lille coach explained of the Ivory Coast international, who has an eye-catching 16 goals and eight assists in 26 top-flight appearances this season.
"He has the athletic qualities that a modern top-level footballer needs: speed, penetration, the capacity to maintain intensity in his running and his sprints, he is robust, and he has a very good left foot."
Galtier added: "He makes me think a lot about the two wide players who play at Bayern Munich every season. He’s left-footed, [Arjen] Robben when he was younger had that capacity to cut inside, eliminate defenders and finish very well. Franck Ribery is right footed, and also had that capacity to play on the flank and cut inside on to his good foot, he’s that kind of player."
'Considerably modify the dressing room'
Having had a hand in more than half of his team's goals, Pepe has had a central role in helping his team into second place in the table. It marks a significant change to last season when — after a disastrous start under Marcelo Bielsa — Galtier took over with the team in 18th place, and only narrowly steered them to safety.
"In the first six months, we urgently needed results. We succeeded right at the end – luckily as it meant the club avoided relegation. Then when those first six months had finished, I discussed the makeup of the squad at length with the management.
"We didn’t discuss names, but rather the importance of recruiting senior figures, the importance of having very precise characteristics that correspond with the way I want my team to play. We also wanted to considerably modify the dressing room.
"There were 14 departures. Not all for the same reason. There were some players we had to sell, transfers we didn’t want to do, but the financial situation left us no choice. I’m thinking about Lebo Mothiba, and there were other players we wanted to sell either because they didn’t settle well, or they didn’t show the right spirit."
The experience of ex-Southampton defender Jose Fonte has helped stiffen the back line, while young Portuguese striker Rafael Leao is also starting to show the potential he has with the 19-year-old claiming six goals in his last eight league games.
Despite the stumble of two draws in their last two league games, Lille still have a healthy cushion in hand over the teams outside the top four, and if they finish in the top three, they will qualify for next season's Champions League.
Galtier, who took AS Saint-Etienne into the UEFA Europa League, is keen for a return to European fooball.
"I ask my players to be ambitious. They are young, very young, some are 18, 19, 20, 21, I ask them to be ambitious. Ambitious doesn’t mean pretentious. You must have ambition in what we do. I have ambition, I want to taste European competition again, play European games.
At the moment we are second, we have a good average of points/game, I don’t sense my players are tired… touch wood everyone is available. We are in this position. We fought to get there, nobody gave it to us. I think we have the means to stay there, even if there are going to be some direct confrontations… we have to play at Lyon, we host Paris, we go to Saint-Etienne,these are important games.
"Will we manage to qualify for the Champions League? I don’t know. But my players are very ambitious. We come back to ambition. I don’t want to take that ambition away from them. I want us to stay clearheaded, keep our feet on the ground. But when I see my players ambitious like that, it gives me a lot of hope."