Ousmane Dembele's rise at Rennes brings Neymar, Ronaldo comparisons
On Sunday, Barcelona sporting director Roberto Fernandez flew over to Rennes to watch the club's newest target, Ousmane Dembele, in person.
One must hope that he planned the trip well, because the traffic is notorious around the stadium on matchdays, especially when big local rivals Nantes come over for the fierce Derby de la Bretagne.
If Fernandez failed to take his seat on time, he missed the majestic opening goal, scored by Dembele after just 56 seconds. Receiving the ball in the penalty area, he sent it into the top corner with a delightfully delicate touch, leaving Nantes keeper Remy Riou helpless.
More was to follow after Kamil Grosicki doubled the advantage. On 23 minutes, Dembele sent an inviting free kick into the penalty area. Cheikh M'Bengue tried to deflect it but failed, and the ball flew into the net without touching anyone. Then, on the stroke of half-time, the 18-year-old put the icing on the cake, scoring a with a well-taken goal on the counter.
This was a show of historic proportions for any player, let alone a youngster who had only made his first-team debut in November. Dembele became the first Rennes player ever to score a hat trick in the derby against Nantes, and the first Rennes players to score a hat trick against anyone since 2008. He is also the youngest player to score three times in a single Ligue 1 game since 17-year-old Jeremy Menez did so for Sochaux back in 2005.
With the scoreline at 4-0 at half-time, many Nantes supporters decided to leave and make the 110-kilometer ride home much earlier than expected. The stadium speaker even had to call for the drivers to return to their buses, to the audible delight of home fans. It truly was one of the sweetest days for Rennes, even if the Canaries managed to pull one goal back in the second half.
Dembele was substituted with 10 minutes to go, to allow him a standing ovation from the ecstatic crowd, and Fernandez would most definitely have been impressed by his performance. So would football lovers around France. The young prodigy's name was on everyone's lips before Sunday already, but that show proved his enormous potential even to those who were previously sceptical. Little doubt is left -- we could be witnessing the rise of one of the most precocious talents in the world.
How precocious? For one thing, no player under the age of 20 in the top European leagues has scored more frequently than Dembele, who has netted nine times in just 1,203 minutes on the pitch. Add three assists, and you get an incredible ratio -- the new star has directly contributed to a goal every 100 minutes on average. He found the net on his full debut against Bordeaux in late November, and has been remarkably consistent ever since. A week before shocking Nantes, he scored and assisted in injury time in Toulouse, turning a defeat into a 2-1 win in a space of two minutes.
Not only is Dembele lethal in the penalty area, he impresses with almost divine ball control anywhere on the field. The youngster is two-footed, which makes him unpredictable to defenders. His rate of successful dribbles is second only to Marseille's Lassana Diarra in Ligue 1. He nearly scored the best goal of the season against Caen when his mazy Jay-Jay Okocha-style run made his opponents look like amateurs -- sadly, he marginally missed the target.
Dembele's silky skills are somewhat reminiscent of Neymar, and it is only logical that the Brazilian superstar has long been his idol. "Neymar is my only role model," Dembele said two years ago when playing in the youth team.
Barcelona are his dream destination, and he chose the best possible game to score a hat trick in that respect. For some Rennes fans, he is Messi and Neymar combined, and pundits are starting to claim already that the team is Dembele-dependent. It might surprise you, therefore, that the club nearly lost him in the summer because the player felt underrated.
Having studied at Rennes academy since the age of 13, Dembele was considered the best talent by a distance, usually playing with kids a year or two older than him. Promoted from the under-19s to the reserve team at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, he was crowned player of the season in the fifth division after scoring 13 goals in 18 games.
"I don't see myself as the ultimate star. There are other good players," Dembele said then, but he added: "We will see what happens next season. If Rennes give me a chance, I will take it."
That chance didn't come fast enough for Dembele and his agent's liking, and various clubs were lurking around, waiting to sign the wonderkid who was under contract at Rennes.
The conflict escalated when Dembele refused to attend training sessions, and Rennes' president asked newly appointed project director Mikael Silvestre to take care of the situation. The former Manchester United and Arsenal defender, who grew up at the Breton club, did a phenomenal job in that respect.
Dembele signed a new three-year contract in October, while coach Philippe Montanier promised to give him plenty of opportunities -- although he didn't need too much persuasion after a brilliant debut.
Silvestre is proud of his achievement, because he predicts a very bright future for Dembele.
"I will take a chance and say that he can win Ballon d'Or. I saw Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age at Manchester United, and Ousmane has characteristics that remind me of the young Portuguese," Silvestre said in January.
Dembele mostly played on the left wing for the reserve team last season, but has usually been employed on the right in the first team this term. Then Rolland Courbis, who replaced Montanier in January, tried him in a central role behind the striker against Toulouse and Nantes, and got four goals and an assist in return. Ousmane feels comfortable in any position, and his decision-making is getting better and better on weekly basis.
While his push for a transfer in the summer might have made a negative impression about his character, it seems appearances may be deceptive.
"Ousmane is a little shy. He is not selfish or arrogant, and is still very close to his former teammates from the youth team," Dominique Faurie of local media outlet Ouest France told ESPN FC.
At the current rate of progress, the sky looks the limit for Dembele, and some even claim that he should probably be called into the France squad ahead of Euro 2016. That looks a very long shot at the moment, but a big move could certainly be on the cards this summer, with several top Premier League clubs reportedly joining Barca in the race for his services.
The hope must be that, whatever his ultimate decision, he chooses a path that allows him to develop and fulfil his undoubted potential.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin