Rayan Cherki,The latest Lyon's academy gem earning links to big clubs including Real Madrid, Man Utd
'Next Generation' is a series focusing on the young players tipped to establish themselves as the elite in the 2020s.
Rayan Cherki is Lyon's latest academy prodigy and has set his sights firmly on the top, openly admitting in March that he aspires to one day play for Real Madrid.
He is the 16-year-old who has already made 12 senior appearances for Lyon and has been tipped to emulate Kylian Mbappe as the next big thing to come out of Ligue 1.
On Monday, he signed a new contract with Lyon, keeping him at the club until at least 2023, though that is unlikely to deter his potential suitors too much.
Madrid are not alone in showing an interest in the promising midfielder, though, with Manchester United and Liverpool also among those to have been linked.
Able to play on either flank or through the middle and capable of embarrassing defenders with his trickery, Cherki is very much a player with the world at his feet.
After scoring in the UEFA Youth League at the age of 15, becoming the youngest player to do so at the time, Cherki was already a name on Lyon fans' lips when making his senior bow.
That came in a stalemate with Dijon in October, making him the youngest player – at 16 years and 63 days – to appear for Lyon in Ligue 1 since Willem Geubbels in 2017.
By comparison, World Cup-winning striker Mbappe was still more than nine months away from his Monaco debut at the same age.
And while the game finished in a bore draw, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas heaped praise on the youngster and later said he has the potential to become better than Mbappe.
"He is more technical than Mbappe... and more important – he has broken out at a younger age," Aulas told Tuttosport in February. "If he stays at Lyon for another few years, he will become even better than Mbappe."
Aulas was not alone in hailing Cherki, with boss Rudi Garcia singling him out for his energy in the middle of the park – something that would start to become a more regular occurrence.
Praise and potential is one thing, of course - showing that you are capable of living up to the hype is another matter entirely.
In the five months between making his senior debut and the enforced Ligue 1 break due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cherki regularly justified the talk of being the next big thing.
He has gone on to make 12 appearances for Lyon in all competitions – four of those as a starter – totalling 453 minutes in total.
Impressively, the France Under-16 international already boasts three goals and two assists, giving him a return of one goal involvement per 91 minutes on the field. He is also creating a scoring opportunity every 41 minutes.
Four of those goals involvements – two strikes of his own and two assists – came in January's Coupe de France win over Nantes, earning front-page billing on French daily L'Equipe.
If Europe's elite clubs had not taken notice of Cherki before then, they certainly did at this point.
SUSTAINING HIS FORM
Lyon have a history of bringing through talented youngsters, with the likes of Nabil Fekir, Karim Benzema, Corentin Tolisso and Samuel Umtiti among them.
The first player born in 2003 or later to play in Ligue 1, Cherki now needs to maintain the form he has displayed in his first half-season in order to emulate those aforementioned stars.
And the attacking midfielder, whose solitary league start came away at Paris Saint-Germain, certainly does not lack confidence when it comes to his career path.
"My dream is to play for Real Madrid," he said in an interview with Lyon TV last week, perhaps swayed by the progress of compatriots Benzema and Raphael Varane at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Cherki, also eligible to represent Italy or Algeria at international level through his parents, also outlined his intention to one day win the Ballon d'Or.
The versatile attacker still has a long way to go for that to happen, of course, and there are improvements to be made. One of the criticisms has been his insistence on going it alone too often, rather than taking an easier option.
"He has a strong ability to beat players but uses it too much and not especially wisely," Garcia said at the turn of the year, perhaps trying to downplay the growing hype. "We have to be careful with our young players, that's why we protect him a lot, especially in the media aspect of things.
"He is fairly quiet, but he must be aware that he still has huge room for improvement. The good thing about him is that he listens. If he continues like this, he will be able to go as high as possible."
Heed the advice of his manager and the path to superstardom awaits for Cherki, whether at Lyon, Real Madrid or elsewhere.
SECURING HIS FUTURE
At least for the time being, however, Cherki is staying put.
With the Ligue 1 season cancelled due to coronavirus, Lyon finished seventh, though they do have to play Juventus in the Champions League in August – and possibly compete in the shortened conclusion to the tournament in Portugal later that month.
While European football is not guaranteed, Cherki should continue to get the time to develop with Lyon, who have also guaranteed themselves a strong bargaining position if a superpower does come calling.