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It is a rare occasion that a team can win a game by three goals and still feel like they have been given the runaround by an opponent.
That is what happened last season at the Etihad Stadium, though, as Manchester City ran out 6-3 victors against RB Leipzig in the Champions League group stage, conceding a hat-trick to a player who was undergoing one of the most explosive rises in recent years.
Christopher Nkunku became one of two players to score a hat-trick against City in Europe’s premier club competition, the other being Lionel Messi in October 2016.
Presumably to City’s relief, Nkunku looks set to miss a return visit in their Champions League last-16 second leg after suffering a minor thigh strain in the recent loss at Borussia Dortmund, and Leipzig would therefore be without one of the most impressive players in Europe.
Nkunku came through the youth set-up at Paris Saint-Germain, spending four seasons there after his first-team debut in the 2015-16 campaign, making 78 appearances in all for his hometown club.
He wanted more responsibility, though, often getting lost among the superstars of the Parc des Princes, such as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, and sealed a move worth a reported €13million to RB Leipzig in July 2019.
Nkunku was not an immediate success in Germany either, but he played 60 league games over his first two seasons at Red Bull Arena, and his development became obvious by the third.
In his final season in Paris in 2018-19, he had six goal involvements (four goals, two assists) in 29 appearances (17 starts). Last season for Leipzig, he recorded 51 goal involvements (35 goals, 16 assists) in 52 appearances (48 starts).
This drastic increase is likely down to extra game-time, responsibility and also the sort of general improvements you would expect of a player in three years at that age.
It also appeared Nkunku was simply getting into better scoring positions, though.
In his last year in Ligue 1, he largely played on the right for PSG, with 48 per cent of his touches across the entire pitch on average coming on the right-side of the opposition’s half.
However, just four per cent of his touches came inside the opposition penalty area, which increased to 14 per cent this season in the Bundesliga.
From 2018-19 to 2021-22, Nkunku also increased his output in terms of total shots per 90 (from 1.8 to 2.7), chance conversion (21.1 per cent to 35.1 per cent) and, most drastically, shooting accuracy (42.1 per cent to 70.8 per cent).
That explosion led to some concerns he could have been a one-season wonder, but Nkunku has another 17 goals and three assists in 27 games (22 starts) this season, having missed a chunk of it with a knee injury sustained just before the World Cup, where he had been tipped to shine for eventual runners-up France in Qatar.
He has scored 10 goals across his last 12 starts in the Champions League and has attracted interest from several of Europe’s top clubs, with reports suggesting a big-money move to Chelsea is all but done for the end of the season.
Nkunku won the Bundesliga’s player of the season award in 2021-22, despite being joint-fourth top scorer in the league alongside Anthony Modeste (20), behind Robert Lewandowski (35), Patrick Schick (24) and Erling Haaland (22).
It was his creativity as well as his goals that won him plaudits, though, with only Thomas Muller (18) claiming more assists in the league than his 13.
Prior to Nkunku’s return from injury against Wolfsburg in February, Leipzig head coach Marco Rose said of the 25-year-old: “There are not many players in the world that are as talented as he is.
“Christo does things that you can’t expect because he’s an impact player and immensely talented… He’s got a good feel for when to make a run and can carry the ball into those one-v-one situations. He adds a lot to our game, and his absence has been felt by all of us.”
A thigh strain suffered in the 2-1 defeat at Dortmund looks like it will keep Nkunku from taking to the field against City on Tuesday, and that would be a significant blow to Rose’s chances of masterminding a win.
184 – Christopher #Nkunku had the most touches in the opposition box of any player in the #Bundesliga in 2022 (184). Dangerous. pic.twitter.com/CDSE6gdRLY
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) December 28, 2022
Still without first-choice goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, as well as combative midfielder Xaver Schlager, Rose has some selection headaches to contend with, but he still has plenty of exceptional talent to call on.
Centre-back Josko Gvardiol will again be tasked with stopping Haaland, as he did expertly in the first leg, while he also scored Leipzig’s equalising goal.
The Croatian found the net in Saturday’s 3-0 win against Borussia Monchengladbach as well, as did Timo Werner, whose importance will be paramount in the absence of Nkunku.
Werner has 13 goals in 27 games since his return from Chelsea, and his pace on the counter-attack against a City team who often push high should be a key factor.
Dani Olmo is another attacking option who has been out with injury, with Rose suggesting the Spain international could at least play a part off the bench against City.
In Nkunku, though, they will be without their main man, assuming he does not make a miraculous recovery.
At his pre-match press conference, City manager Pep Guardiola was asked about the Frenchman’s likely absence, saying: “Nkunku is an exceptional player, but they live this season without him and do it really well without him.”
Whether they can manage really well without him again will be the difference between the Champions League quarter-finals and elimination.