Caen’s 2014/15 Ligue 1 campaign was a picture of mediocrity.
SMC finished 13th, avoiding relegation by nine points having been promoted to the top flight the previous campaign.
All very unremarkable in Normandy, until you dig beneath the surface.
Little did anyone know at the time, but Caen’s squad possessed the world’s best defensive midfielder, a €60million France international and the man currently outscoring Neymar.
The story of N’Golo Kante, the finest marksman in the art of destroying midfields, is well told.
Kante joined Caen from Boulougne, spending two seasons at the club before sprinting and harrying his way to Premier League titles with Leicester and Chelsea. Nothing new there.
His work at Caen allowed Thomas Lemar to flourish in a more attacking role. Lemar, who scored one league goal that season, can now be found at Atletico Madrid following a title-winning spell at Monaco.
The third part of the trio is the least heralded. But that’s always been the way for Emiliano Sala, Ligue 1’s current joint-top goalscorer.
Sala, who now turns out for Nantes, has scored 12 goals, a total only Kylian Mbappe can match. Neymar, Edinson Cavani, Nabil Fekir, Falcao and Memphis Depay are all trailing to the lanky Argentinian.
At 28, there’s more than a touch of the Luca Tonis about Sala’s journey from an everyman net-rustler to a potential golden boot winner.
Sala was born in Santa Fe, the Argentine province famous for birthing Lionel Messi, Mauricio Pochettino and the man who warms the gloves of the man who warms Hugo Lloris’ gloves, Paulo Gazzaniga.
From Argentina Sala travelled to Bordeaux, making his first-team debut during the 2011/12 campaign in which the club finished 5th, powered by the goals of Yoan Gouffran.
Bordeaux proved to be a false start for the Argentinian.
Prolific loan spells in Ligue 2 with Orleans and Niort gave way to a top-flight shot with Caen, where his path crossed with Kante and Lemar for the second half of the 2014/15 Ligue 1 season.
Bordeaux cut their losses in July 2015, by which point Sala had scored one league goal for the club. A €1mil move to Nantes went very much under the radar, as did Kante’s to Leicester the same summer.
While Kante hit the ground running in England, it took Sala 14 games to get off the mark for his new club. He finished his first season at Nantes with six goals in 32 appearances.
The following two seasons, in which he netted 27 goals in all competitions, hinted at a striker finally finding his feet, but no one could have predicted the start Sala would have to the current campaign.
The Argentinian scored against Monaco on the first day of the season and hasn’t looked back since.
A hat-trick against Toulouse on matchday nine sparked a run of eight goals in five games, leaving him sitting on 13 goals for the season in all competitions, just three short of his best top-flight tally.
It’s all the more remarkable given Nantes’s average start to the season has left Les Canaris sitting in 12th.
How long Sala will remain at the club remains to be seen. Cardiff are said to be particularly keen to introduce Sala to Neil Warnock’s unique brand of aerial bombardment.
Whatever happens in the rest of the season, the €1m investment Nantes made is set to be repaid handsomely.
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