Pépé takes on Gradel as Lille face Toulouse
By A. Scott
Sunday's clash between second-placed LOSC and Toulouse FC at Le Stadium will also be a showdown between two Ivorian stars, Nicolas Pépé and Max-Alain Gradel.
Toulouse FC - LOSC
Pépé hit new heights in a fantastic campaign when he scored one goal and set up two more in Lille's stunning 5-1 demolition of champions elect Paris Saint-Germain last weekend. He now has 19 Ligue 1 Conforama goals and 11 assists this season, sensational form that has helped propel his team towards qualification for the UEFA Champions League.
"There was something different about his preparation for the match. He was in the zone, intending to make an impact. He did, and it was surely the mark of a future great player," said Pépé's coach, Christophe Galtier, after that game.
Lille have already admitted that the 23-year-old will be allowed to leave in the close season, and they are set to make an enormous profit on a player who joined from Angers SCO in 2017 for €10 million.
Watch: Pépé and Lille tear apart PSG
Europe's top clubs are already lining up to try to lure away the Ivory Coast international, who was born near Paris and grew up in the capital's north-eastern 19th arrondissement, starting out in football playing as a goalkeeper.
Now he returns to Toulouse, where last season he netted twice as Lille came from behind to win 3-2 and claim a vital result in their battle to beat the drop. It has been a stark turnaround in a year for Les Dogues, whose win over PSG left them eight points clear of Olympique Lyonnais in third place and 11 ahead of AS Saint-Etienne in fourth, meaning a top-three finish appears to be nailed on.
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Galtier's team - who have taken more points than any other side in 2019 - also remain the only team who can officially still deny PSG the title, although a failure to win here will confirm the capital club as champions before they play AS Monaco later.
The change has been rather less dramatic at Le Stadium, meanwhile. Toulouse needed to come through the play-offs to stay up last season, but this time around they are on course to beat the drop more comfortably. Despite a 2-1 reverse at Montpellier Hérault SC last time out, they came into this weekend 10 points clear of the bottom three.
"We still don't have enough points to stay up, and we have a difficult run of fixtures," warned coach Alain Casanova last weekend, but they are nearly there.
Foé award nominees
An improvement in home form has been key for Casanova's team. They went 11 home matches without winning in the league from late August to March, but have now been beaten just once - a narrow loss to PSG - in their last seven games at Le Stadium.
They have pulled themselves clear of trouble despite their captain Gradel having gone almost two months now without a goal. The 31-year-old has 10 league goals for the season, while none of his teammates have more than three. His tally includes a pair of penalties when TFC claimed a shock 2-1 win in Lille just before the winter break.
Watch: Gradel and Toulouse beaten at Montpellier
Gradel moved from Abidjan to Paris as a boy and grew up in the 18th arrondissement of the capital before moving to start his career in England. Given his importance to his team, it is little wonder that he joined Pépé in being nominated for the Prix Marc-Vivien Foé for Ligue 1 Conforama's best African player, awarded by RFI and France 24.
Pépé and Gradel are set to team up for their country at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt in June, when the Elephants will come up against Morocco, South Africa and Namibia in the group phase. But they have plenty still to achieve with their clubs before that.
Toulouse: Reynet; Shoji, Jullien, Moubandjé; Amian, Sidibé, Sangaré, Sylla; Dossevi, Sanogo, Gradel (c)
Lille: Maignan; Çelik, J Fonte (c), Gabriel, Koné; Mendes, Soumaré; Pépé, Ikoné, Bamba; Leão