Scorer of a brace against FC Metz last weekend, Karl Toko-Ekambi’s recent form for Olympique Lyonnais has served as a reminder of the value of a striker who was panned by critics for a big miss in the spotlight of the Champions League ‘Final Eight’ in August.
Turn the clock back to August, when Toko-Ekambi was cruelly nicknamed Poteau-Ekambi after squandering a glorious chance to put Lyon ahead in the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich in Lisbon.
As the name suggests, the big striker hit the post when he might have scored in the early stages with the match still goalless. It took just 49 seconds after that for Serge Gnabry to put Bayern in front, and they went on to win 3-0 before defeating Paris Saint-Germain in the final. Lyon went home to face up to a season without any European football at all for the first time in almost quarter of a century.
Any suggestion that it was all Toko-Ekambi’s fault was grossly unfair, although he later insisted that he didn’t care.
“We had a great run, that’s what counts. I am actually happy that it happened to me, because these comments can destabilise a player, but I just don’t care,” he said in an interview with L’Equipe.
He has since set about proving wrong those who doubted Lyon’s decision in June to turn his loan move from Spanish side Villarreal into a permanent four-year deal for a significant fee. Despite scoring just twice before last season shut down early due to the pandemic, and despite the difficult economic context, OL agreed to pay a fee of €11.5 million for the Cameroon international, with up to €4 million more in bonuses, not to mention a percentage of any future sell-on fee.
The turning point
Toko-Ekambi did not score in any of Lyon’s first six matches this season, in which time they won only once. But his fortunes then turned, and those of his team at the same time. Away at RC Strasbourg Alsace in Round 7, Lyon coach Rudi Garcia opted to play the 28-year-old wide left in a front three, with Memphis Depay through the middle and Tino Kadewere on the right. Kadewere scored the opener, then Toko Ekambi scored two more and Lyon were 3-0 up before eventually holding out to win 3-2.
That result started a run in which Lyon have won six times and drawn once in seven games. They are unbeaten in 10 games altogether and will leapfrog PSG with a win at the Parc des Princes on Sunday.
Watch: Toko-Ekambi's brace in Lyon's win at Metz
A week after the Strasbourg success, Toko-Ekambi - able to come in from the left flank onto his right foot - scored twice in a 4-1 demolition of AS Monaco. He scored one and set up two in the recent 3-0 home win over Stade de Reims, and his double in the 3-1 victory in Metz last time out left him on seven goals for the season, a tally bettered only by Kylian Mbappé at PSG (10) and Boulaye Dia of Reims (8).
“Between Karl, Memphis and I, we understand each other’s style and it works well,” said Kadewere, who has four goals since stepping up to the top flight from Le Havre. Depay has scored six, and Lyon are on course for the top-three finish they so crave.
Sunday’s game will go some way to determining whether Lyon can do better than that and challenge PSG for the title, while that front three will take some dislodging, much to the disappointment of Moussa Dembélé, who is now struggling to get back in the team.
As for Toko-Ekambi, Lyon coach Garcia has been effusive in his praise of a player he reportedly once tried to sign for Olympique de Marseille. Garcia recently described him as “the prototype of the modern attacker. He makes runs, combines with other players, sets up chances, scores goals, is dangerous.”
What is remarkable about Toko-Ekambi is that he was nearly lost to the sport altogether when he suffered a knee injury as a teenager, stopped playing organised football and instead helped found the rap group MZ. For a time he was known as MC Loka before getting the chance to return to the game at Paris FC and going his own way.
Toko-Ekambi scores on his Lyon debut
“It became a serious project when I left. I had to choose and I decided to concentrate on football,” he said years later.
MZ eventually split up in 2016, by which time Toko-Ekambi had gone from Paris FC in the third tier, to FC Sochaux-Montbéliard in Ligue 2, to Angers SCO in Ligue 1. He made his Cameroon debut in 2015 and went on to feature in their triumphant 2017 Africa Cup of Nations campaign, before helping Angers to the Coupe de France final, and a narrow loss to PSG, later the same year.
It was after scoring 17 goals in the 2017-18 campaign that he was sold to Villarreal for a reported €20 million, and he did reasonably well in La Liga before returning to France a year and a half later.
Close to his roots
On Sunday he returns to Paris, where the rangy striker grew up, in a Cameroonian family in the city’s southern 13th arrondissement. His home was a stone’s throw from the Stade Charlety, where Paris FC ply their trade before crowds that are sparse on a good day.
Toko-Ekambi, who failed his science baccalauréat exams as he was coming through at Paris FC, was a PSG fan as a kid, albeit not a devoted one. “I was a supporter as a kid, even if I didn’t go to the Parc des Princes often,” he told France Football magazine. However, he has always remained devoted to the quartier where he grew up and to the FC Gobelins club for whom he turned out as a youth.
“I have always kept the same mates, I have never changed,” he told Le Parisien earlier this year. “I have always had my little quiet life on the side, even when I started to earn money. I wasn’t born into football and I didn’t come through an academy.”
Toko-Ekambi offers something different, and that is proving very useful to Lyon right now.