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Meet The Young Zimbabwean Who Has Lyon Dreaming Of Toppling PSG

As we approach the New Year and the halfway point of domestic seasons, it’s become evident that the resources and depth boasted by Europe’s top clubs should be enough to weather the wildest of campaigns. Bayern Munich and Liverpool are favorites to defend their respective titles, while Real Madrid’s only genuine challenger appears to be Atlético.

The best chance for a changing of the guard is in Italy, where a Juventus side in transition finds itself in sixth and 10 points back of AC Milan. In France, PSG is in third and just one point back of Lyon, but special mention must be made of Rudi Garcia’s side.

In the absurdity that was the 2019-20 season, no club experienced the sporting extremes of the pandemic quite like Lyon. After a seven-match winless streak last fall led to the sacking of Sylvinho, Garcia oversaw a change in form that led to appearances in the final of the Coupe de la Ligue and semifinals of the Coupe de France (defeated by PSG on both occasions) and most impressively a trip to the Champions League semis after knocking out Juventus and Manchester City. 

Domestically, Lyon climbed from the depths of 14th up to seventh, but Ligue 1 was called off with 10 matches remaining. The move was a contentious one, and Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas went as far as threatening a $980 million lawsuit.

The decision — although trailing fifth-place Nice and sixth-place Reims by just one point — locked Lyon in seventh, representing the club’s lowest finish since 1996-97. That was also the last time Lyon failed to qualify for either the Champions or Europa League.

The offseason saw a few departures — Bertrand Traoré joined Aston Villa for $25 million and Martin Terrier Rennes for $15 million — but Karl Toko Ekambi was signed on a permanent deal from Villarreal for $14 million and Lucas Paquetá joined from Milan for $25 million. 

Heading into the season, the most important aspect of Lyon’s preparation was that 22-year-old midfield maestro Houssem Aouar remained along with top scorers Moussa Dembélé and Memphis Depay. 

Depay, despite interest from Barcelona, has picked up where he left off with eight goals and four assists in 17 games, but Dembélé has struggled with just one goal after hitting 24 last campaign, and then he broke his arm in training last week.

Yet Lyon remains one of the most formidable clubs across Europe’s top five leagues. According to WhoScored, they average the fourth-most successful dribbles per match and only Napoli attempts more shots per game (17.2 versus 17.1). Key to that has been a development that received zero attention at the time: the loan return of Zimbabwean striker Tino Kadewere from Ligue 2's Le Havre.

The 24-year-old’s path has been from Zimbabwe’s Harare City to Sweden’s Djurgårdens to France, but he highlighted his development last year when finishing as the Ligue 2 Golden Boot winner with 20 goals in 24 games.

No one could’ve predicted — especially with the aforementioned weapons already at Lyon’s disposal — that Kadewere would score seven goals and provide three assists in his first 16 league appearances. That’s four more goals than Neymar has managed. 

“I had a very good season last year with Le Havre and when I got here I realized I had good teammates who work all the time with me, and who talk to me a lot,” Kadewere said. “That explains why I’ve been able to adapt so quickly. When you play with players like my teammates then it’s magnificent.” 

The highlights so far include a brace against Saint-Étienne in a 2-1 win and the lone goal in Lyon’s 1-0 victory over PSG on Dec. 13.

“The title? To be honest, I want us to qualify for the Champions League,” Kadewere said after beating PSG. “It would be a dream. If we continue like this, working very hard, we have our chances of finishing first. It would be difficult. We never know.” 

My only criticism of Kadewere is his incredibly half-assed use of LeBron James’ “Silencer” celebration, doubly so since he’s performing it inside empty stadiums. With a great number of goals comes a great responsibility to deliver your own celebration, especially when you transition into a national icon.

“I have been closely watching him and I must admit that the boy is a formidable force,” said Zimbabwe national team coach Zdravko Logarusic. “He is riding high like a Warrior. He is raising the country’s flag high.”

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