Africans Abroad: Nicolas Pepe dazzles for Arsenal, Eric Bailly returns for Manchester United
Ivorian duo Nicolas Pepe and Eric Bailly were among the star African performers across Europe's major league this weekend, as they played their part in two major English Premier League victories.
Pepe, recruited from LOSC Lille for £72 million last summer, has largely struggled to produce the qualities that he demonstrated in Ligue 1 last term. However, he was influential in Arsenal's 4-0 demolition of Newcastle United on Sunday, in perhaps the finest performance of Mikel Arteta's tenure, suggesting that he may prove to be the key figure of the Spaniard's reign.
If Pepe's early-season struggles are to be explained away as a new player adapting to the rigours of a new league and a new country, then the 24-year-old needs to start delivering more of the performances that we witnessed on Sunday.
His accurate cross set up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to head home Arsenal's opener -- and his 15th league goal of the season -- in the 54th minute, and the wideman proceeded to add the second just 156 seconds later. Bukayo Saka's shimmy wide on the left created a bit of space, and the Anglo-Nigerian youngster duly set up Pepe for a close-range finish for his eighth assist of the season.
By this point in the match, Pepe had already had a direct hand in more goals than in his previous seven EPL outings, and there was more to come. Pepe set up Alexandre Lacazette for Arsenal's fourth at the death, after Mesut Ozil had calmly finished their third, to cap off a marvellous display, and arguably the finest by any African player in Europe this weekend.
"We just need consistency from him," Arteta said on Sky Sports after the match.
"The way he applied himself defensively as well, he was doing things he didn't do in the past.
"He made the difference today."
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Saka continued his excellent maiden season at left-back -- a position he's fast making his own -- while Eddie Nketiah also hit the woodwork on his first Premier League start for the Gunners.
"Nketiah's been training really well," Arteta said.
"He's a kid who has a goal in him. He's a very talented player to find goals and get into goal-scoring situations.
"I trust him, that's why I decided to keep him."
At Stamford Bridge on Monday, Manchester United defeated Chelsea 2-0 to give their UEFA Champions League aspirations a shot in the arm.
The match was notable for Odion Ighalo's debut, as the former Super Eagles striker came off the bench to become the first Nigerian to play for the Red Devils, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also handed an unlikely return to Eric Bailly.
The Ivorian centre-back hadn't played a competitive game for United since April 2019, due to a knee ligament injury, but he showed little rust as he successfully neutralised Michy Batshuayi.
Starring on the right side of United's back three, Bailly demonstrated the rugged physicality and relentless commitment that made him such a hit with the club's fans during his first season in English football back in 2016-17.
"Absolutely fantastic, wasn't he?" Solskjaer said after the match, as per the Manchester Evening News.
"[It's] not a bad [selection] conundrum [to have], because Eric's a top player.
"It was his first game since we played Chelsea last year in April. He's such a top, top defender, and his block from [Mateo] Kovacic is out-of-this-world defending. He's quick, he's strong, brave as a lion, and it's great to have him back."
Sadio Mane's 78th-minute strike took Liverpool past Norwich City 1-0 on Saturday, extending their Premier League winning run to 17 matches -- one off the English all-time top flight record.
Paris Saint-Germain battled back from three goals down to lead Amiens 4-3 heading into stoppage time, only for Serhou Guirassy to snatch a point for the hosts with a 91st-minute equalizer that capped one of the most remarkable matches of the season.
The highlight of Amiens' three-goal first half was a dazzling effort from former Chelsea player Gael Kakuta, who broke into the box, evaded Thiago Silva and slammed a left-footed effort across goal into the far corner.
Franco-Ivorian Nianzou Kouassi was the key catalyst in PSG's second-half comeback, scoring twice -- his first league goals for the club -- as Amiens crumbled.
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In Lille, Victor Osimhen overcame a muscle injury to open the scoring against Olympique de Marseille, but the Nigerian was unable to prevent Les Dogues from falling to a 2-1 defeat that means they are 10 points behind PSG.
Waris Majeed s second-half assist for Strasbourg rescued a point away at Olympique Lyonnais, after Bertrand Traore had opened the scoring, while Africans Farid Boulaya, Steven Moreira and Casimir Ninga were all sent off during an ill-tempered weekend in the French top flight.
Dijon's left-sider Mounir Chouiar scored twice at Bordeaux to take a point back to the Cote d'Or following a 2-2 draw, and, on Friday, Algeria's Islam Slimani scored the only goal of the game as AS Monaco defeated Montpellier 1-0 -- extending his goalscoring streak to three matches.
The most notable African contribution of the weekend in La Liga came -- in comical fashion -- in Celta Vigo's 2-2 draw at league leaders Real Madrid, as Ghana's Joseph Aidoo clattered into Los Merengues boss Zinedine Zidane on the touchline.
"Sir Zidane," Aidoo wrote on his Instagram page on Tuesday, "my sincere apologies for the clash in the game. I truly hope you are okay. Sending positive vibes your way. Much respect sir."
Sir Zidane, my sincere apologies for the clash in the game. I truly hope you are okay. Sending positive vibes your way. Much respect sir.