Thirty-seven games had elapsed; just two minutes of another Ligue 1 season remained. None of the capacity sea of colour and noise at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais were leaving this one early.
Having seen Les Gones recover from a first-half breakaway strike from Nice’s Alassane Pléa, the home crowd were a bag of nerves. The clock ticked down. Another goal from the visitors would consign Lyon – not so much a club but an institution in France – to another season in the Europa League. Holding on would give them a seat at the Champions League table next season.
As the clock struck 88 minutes, striker Bertrand Traore threaded a ball through to his strike partner, who had found himself in space on the left. A split-second’s hesitation forced goalkeeper Walter Benitez to commit; a split-second later and the ball had been chipped over Benitez and into the net. The third goal Lyon craved had arrived, and arrived from a resurgent revelation in south-eastern France this season.
Memphis Depay had just completed his hat-trick and scored his 19th Ligue 1 goal of the season to add to his haul of nine assists – figures any forward across the continent would envy. His first full season at Lyon since his £16m move after a chastening spell at Manchester United had been a roaring success.
A now trademark celebration followed the Dutchman’s delightful dink over Benitez: a finger in each ear. A man whose name was the talk of Europe in his final season at PSV Eindhoven is now not interested in what anyone has to say.
As well as the hat-trick against Nice, last minute winners away to bitter rivals Marseille – a deft header stole a 3-2 win – and at home to runaway league winners Paris Saint-Germain – thanks to a rocket that arrowed into the top corner for a 2-1 victory – have underlined Memphis’ status as a star man for Bruno Génésio’s side this season.
A star is born in Eindhoven
Born in the small town of Moordrecht to a Dutch mother and a Ghanaian father, Memphis found himself on the books at PSV as a 12-year-old after spells at his local club and Sparta Rotterdam.
After seven goals in his first two seasons, the breakthrough came in 2013/14. Fourteen goals in all competitions led to a call-up to Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Goals in the last two group games, both as a substitute, won him more admirers.
History was made the following season. 22 Eredivisie goals and six more in Europe, including seven free-kicks, saw Memphis drive PSV to their first league title in seven years.
Confidence was something Memphis did not struggle with during his latter years at PSV. A number of tattoos, including the word ‘dreamchaser’ on his chest and the word ‘succesvol’ – successful – on the inside of his lip, although not permanent, demonstrated his belief he could go all the way to the top.
Manchester United: The right club at the wrong time?
Memphis’ talismanic performances at Lyon this season are a stark contrast to the 21-year-old upstart who arrived at Old Trafford for £30m in June 2015.
In an interview with MUTV, journalist Thijs Slegers, a journalist for magazine Voetbal International at the time, said: “Memphis is a little bit like Cristiano; they have similar qualities. His determination to be the best is where I see the real similarity with Cristiano.”
Both young, brash, tricky wingers wearing the famous number 7. That’s where, unfortunately for Memphis, the comparisons ended.
Despite a brace and an assist in a man-of-the-match performance in a Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge, he struggled to adapt to the rigours of English league football.
He was mostly shackled to the left wing in van Gaal’s robotic, possession-based team. Early substitutions against Tottenham and Liverpool and questions about his lifestyle affected his performances.
“Back in Manchester, I was not happy with myself,” Memphis told French TV station Canal+ earlier this year. “I looked in the mirror and I was not happy, I was sad. Now I’m happy to be myself.”
Just two league goals and seven strikes in 45 appearances in all competitions during his time at Old Trafford was more than underwhelming for such a prolific purchase.
Resurgence in France
Mourinho granted a move to Lyon in January 2017, which was salvation for a player desperate to get his young career back on track.
Playing on the left of a front three, not fulfilling his defensive duties meant he was not always in manager Bruno Génésio’s starting eleven.
He still managed eight goals in 19 league games (starting 16) before Christmas, a clear sign that being dropped or substituted was no longer affecting his confidence as it had during his time in England.
His header against Marseille in the last minute of the “Olympico” at the Stade Velodrome was a turning point in Memphis’ Lyon career.
An injury to striker Mariano Diaz and an experiment by Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman to play the former PSV man up front in a 3-5-2 in a friendly against Portugal were the catalyst for his sumptuous end-of-season form.
After first being deployed as the central striker, Memphis was then partnered with Bertrand Traore in a diamond formation, free from any defensive duties, to spectacular effect.
Nine goals in the next eight games followed, as well as six assists – four in a 5-0 win at Metz.
The man with the lion tattoo on his back was roaring again.
His resurgence in France has drawn comparisons with the success of Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and Liverpool’s talisman Mohamed Salah this season.
Both were sold during Mourinho’s tenure at Chelsea, and both have come back to dominate the league this term.
Could Memphis do the same? He simply had to leave Old Trafford for the benefit of his career.
If he continues his goalscoring exploits with Les Gones next season, there is no reason why the dreamchaser from Moordrecht can’t return to England’s top table again.