It is well-known that the youth ranks of French football are crawling with unexploited African talent. This week we shed light on the notable North African contingent making its mark at l’Olympique Lyonnais. Here are 7 Franco-Algerian talents that you should keep an eye on in the upcoming weeks, months and years.
36 goals in 27 games is a remarkable return for a striker at any level. Patrick Gonfalone recognized that and decided to select Yassine Benzia for the U17 FIFA World Cup in the summer of 2011. It proved a profitable gamble for Benzia won the Silver Boot as the tournament’s second-leading scorer, runner-up only to the Ivorian/Tottenham sensation Souleymane Coulibaly.
For Yassine, it must have all happened so quickly. Three years ago he was a mere standout for French minnows US Quevilly. He is now considered one of France’s, and Lyon’s, finest prospects.
Benzia signed his first professional contract at the end of the 2011/2012 season. Since then he’s made his debut in the Ligue 1 and the Europa League. Remi Garde is making an effort to include the youngster but he is finding it difficult to impose himself as Licha Lopez and Bafe Gomis are both in super form.
An 18 year old Karim Benzema took advantage when injury decimated the Lyon attack in 2007. Milan Baros and Fred were stuck on the sidelines so Benzema became Lyon’s focal point in attack. No one is hoping for an injury, but Yassine Benzia will need to seize his chance when it presents itself.
Rachid Ghezzal is yet another reserviste Garde is ushering into the first-team. In the spring of 2012, Lyon decided to gamble and present ‘Rachon’ with a professional contract and he’s been making steady progress ever since.
Like Benzia, he has also made Ligue 1 and Europa League debuts this season. Ghezzal earned his first senior start vs. Kyrat Shmora in Israel and turned in a promising cameo. Positioned on the habitual left flank, Ghezzal constantly threatened and provided probing crosses at both goalposts. One noteworthy observation was that of Ghezzal’s physical limitations. The winger isn’t particularly strong or agile and he, therefore, relies heavily on a deft touch and a useful left peg to get by.
Ghezzal was rewarded for his performance with a start vs. Sochaux at the Stade Bonal. In Montbeliard, the young Algerian looked timid and a little fazed. Nevertheless, it was but his first league match and it would be unfair to conclude much from it. Garde obviously trusts Rachid Ghezzal and includes him in Lyon’s future plans.
Zeffane is widely regarded as Anthony Reveillere’s natural successor in the Lyon set-up. The comparison likely stems from the fact that he is an attacking fullback whose versatility allows him to play on either flank.
In the summer of 2012, Zeffane was integrated into the first-team and managed to impress. Zeffane participated in the majority of friendly matches. Fans of Les Gones were most impressed with his performance in Bilbao where he embarked on a marauding run and finished emphatically across the keeper.
Zeffane is yet to make his professional debut, but since Lyon have already qualified to the next round of the Europa League, I expect him to nick a few minutes sooner rather than later.
Click here to watch a small report on Mehdi Zeffane at Lyon
Nabil Fekir’s playing style closely resembles that of Rachid Ghezzal.
He is a left-footed winger that can also play off of a striker. Those who keep an eye on the Lyon youth set-up were surprised that it was not he who was fast-tracked into the first-team in lieu of Ghezzal. Fekir is highly rated and some consider him the most talented Algerian born ’93 (though Kamel Chergui at AS Saint-Etienne might have something to say about that). His technical potential is enormous, but even more impressive is his intelligence and vision.
Fekir starts almost every game with the reserves and has made sparse appearances with the first-team in meaningless friendlies.
Position: Attacking midfield
Fares Bahlouli often partnered Benzia in attack for the U17s as a mere 15 years old. At the time the diminutive magician reminded me of a certain Yacine Brahimi. Like Brahimi, Bahlouli is a paragon of dribbling and technical ability. He is also most suited to playing behind a striker in the ‘trequartista’ role.
The last two years have seen Bahlouli hit a tremendous growth spurt. The French U18 international is now equipped with newfound strength that supplements ability. One match, in particular, perfectly showcased Bahlouli’s immense potential. It was the U19 Olimpico which took place in the middle of October. Bahlouli bagged an unconventional brace and drew plaudits for his scintillating performance.
All signs point to him having a successful career, but as with all youth players, he will need mental strength and a little luck with his development.
Zakarie Labidi may very well be the least developed player on this list. It is difficult to gauge his progression because he is very much a raw talent.
Labidi plays on the left, right and in the centre. He tends to drift around the pitch making a nuisance of himself. In France they call his role l’electron libre (the free electron). It may be for this reason that Labidi is criticized for not always being tactically aware.
The jury is still out on Labidi, though it’s certain that he is talented and will be a useful player.
Position: Attacking midfield
Already linked with the likes of Porto and Juventus, Zitouni certainly sounds the part. Yet after doing some digging, it seems that Zitouni’s image has been inflated by his agent.
He prefers the ‘no 10’ role, but when played there, he has failed to make a mark. It is because he has often let the game bypass him that most prefer him on the left or right wing. Even on the wing, Zitouni faces stiff competition by the likes of Fekir, Plea, and N’Gando.
Like most players of Maghrebin origin, his strength lies in his technical ability. But until he can consistently stamp his authority on a match, doubts will linger on his future at Lyon.