x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pjanic is a tiger with Lyon's heart

Karim Benzema is yesterday's news - there's a new kid on the block threatening to become Lyon's headline-maker and front-page story.

Olympique Lyon's Miralem Pjanic challenges Joel Nguemo during their French League One match last Saturday at the Gerland stadium.
Olympique Lyon's Miralem Pjanic challenges Joel Nguemo during their French League One match last Saturday at the Gerland stadium.

Karim Benzema is yesterday's news - there's a new kid on the block threatening to become Lyon's front-page story. Miralem Pjanic is the name, and you're going to hear a lot more about this thrilling 18-year-old in the months ahead. The Bosnia international, who's made a typically smooth start to his Lyon career following his ?7.5million (Dh39.5m) move from Metz last June, is a potential match-winner against Bayern Munich in the Champions League Group F clash at the Allianz Arena tonight - even if he starts on the bench.

The phrase "remarkable rise to fame" is over-used in football - but in Pjanic's case it emphatically applies. This time last year he wasn't even a professional, but such was his impact following his debut for Metz that a three-year deal was soon waved under his nose. His performances during 2007-08 were so dazzling (he won a French Young Player of the Year nomination) that it was inevitable he would find a bigger club following Metz's relegation last May.

As the destination of choice for French football's finest talent, Lyon would have probably come in for him anyway - but it helped that the lively, intelligent attacker produced a man-of-the-match display against them in the French cup quarter-finals last April . "Miralem is a talented boy. He's perfectly at ease with the ball at his feet," said Remi Garde, Lyon's head of recruitment, after getting his man. "His technical ability is well above average. He sees things before other players, he brings others into play, he's great on both feet and he can shoot as well. Last year, he was playing for France's under-16 champions. Now he's playing in Ligue 1. You can't fail to be impressed by the speed at which he's adapted. Only a top talent can do that. And he'll get even better with experience."

Not that life has always been a dream. Pjanic's family moved from war-torn Bosnia to Luxembourg when he was a toddler, which is why the youngster represented Luxembourg at age-group levels. Despite overtures from Luxembourg and France to represent their under-21s sides, Pjanic pledged his international future to Bosnia and has won three senior caps. Bosnian fans are hoping he can help the nation reach a major tournament for the first time.

Pjanic's favourite position is behind the strikers, but he's been effective cutting in from the left for Metz and Lyon. He's a great asset to have on the bench because he can play in several other positions, dribbles well and possesses a disarming change of pace - exactly the sort of weapons that worry tiring defences late in games. A host of clubs queued up for his signature in the summer - but his heart was set on joining the seven-times French champions. "I am here to win trophies and I don't feel sorry to have declined other offers to come to Stade de Gerland," he said. "Lyon have a great team who can go far in the Champions League. I had requests from abroad, including Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Aston Villa and Fiorentina, but I wanted to stay in France."

His decision was great news not only for Lyon but also French fans grown used to seeing the best young players depart. Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery are among those who have left in recent seasons - but they have the pleasure of Pjanic's presence a while longer. Will he make his Champions League bow tonight? Coach Claude Puel's rotation policy means it's impossible to say - but the richly talented teenager will make an impact sooner or later. Watch out, Benzema - your club have a new headline-maker.

sports@thenational.ae