Impressive Pépé sets sights on Champions League
This season Nicolas Pépé has emerged as one of the most in-demand young forwards in Europe...
Playing on the right side of Lille's attack, the 23-year-old Ivorian has already contributed eight goals and five assists, helping Les Dogues up to second place coming into the weekend.
"I'm trying to perform in every game, to score or to help the team to score," Pépé told The Ligue 1 Show on beIN Sports. "I used to be accused of inconsistency, so it's great for me and for the team that I'm managing to be decisive now on a regular basis."
Thanks to Pépé, the 2011 title-winners are currently on course for a return to the Champions League. The northerners have been beaten just once in their last ten games, and that was against Paris Saint-Germain, the runaway Ligue 1 Conforama leaders. No wonder they are feeling more ambitious these days.
"The fans had Champions League football not so long ago and they'd love to hear that music again, and so would we," Pépé said.
Pépé on target against Saint-Etienne earlier this season
"We're second and doing our best to stay there. We know that Marseille, Lyon, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne, and even Monaco - who are going through a tough patch - can all come back at us. It'll be hard to stay up there in the long term, but we'll try. We know we'll hit a difficult spell at some point, but we've already picked up a lot of points."
Now scoring goals, formerly in goal...
Pépé's emergence as a fearsome attacker may have surprised his childhood mates - as a boy, he spent most of the time playing in goal for his local team, FC Solitaire Paris Est.
"I used to enjoy being a goalkeeper. I started playing there when I was little and kept going until I was 14. Sometimes I'd get bored because we used to win a lot, and I didn't have much to do. I knew I could be a good outfield player, and so did my mates - they used to tell me to play outfield, and that's how I realised I could be good."
Those days playing between the sticks weren't wasted though - as Pépé explains: "I understand a goalkeeper's movements now, and that really helps me when I'm shooting."
But it's with his feet that he's impressing most, and Pépé's skill and pace evoke comparisons with some household names.
"I used to watch a lot of Ronaldinho videos, Robinho, dribblers. But I didn't have any idols. I had examples, guys like Messi who I really admire. I can't do what he does but I try to copy him," he said.
Galtier 'like a father'
Pépé managed 13 goals last year during a difficult campaign for LOSC. But with the team now looking settled, the elegant left-footer is shooting more than any player in the league, and is on course to enjoy his best-ever season under the watchful eye of coach Christophe Galtier.
"He's like a father. He really looks out for me and helps me improve every day, especially tactically. He's always behind me and that makes me want to push my limits as far as possible," he said.
The subject of interest from Borussia Dortmund and Olympique Lyonnais in the summer, Pépé is now reportedly on Barcelona and Arsenal's radars too. However, Lille president Gérard Lopez has promised the club won't sell - even if they receive a bid of €100 million.
"That's fine with me. It shows that he cares about me, that the club want me to remain part of the project, until the end of the season," the player said.