RB Leipzig are on the verge of the Champions League final, but may have to rely on Dayot Upamecano to keep PSG’s star names quiet.
RB Leipzig’s rapid rise to prominence in the Champions League has left them on the brink of a European final, with Paris Saint-Germain standing in the way.
Though star striker Timo Werner has departed for Chelsea, Julian Nagelsmann still has plenty of quality players at his disposal, and chief among them is Dayot Upamecano.
The centre-back, who has a brilliant turn of pace and plenty of power, has drawn interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs in recent seasons.
However, for the time being at least, Leipzig have fended off any approaches, with Upamecano having signed a new deal, which runs until 2023, in July.
With his immediate future settled, Upamecano has the chance to prove he truly is worth the hype as Leipzig take on PSG – spearheaded by two of the world’s greatest attackers in the form of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar – in Lisbon.
The story so far
Despite supposed interest from Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal at the time, Upamecano opted for Salzburg in 2015 and soon got a taste for first-team football at feeder club Liefering.
Given the links between the clubs, it came as little surprise when the centre-back chose Leipzig in January 2017, quickly adapting to a new country and league with 12 Bundesliga appearances over the rest of the campaign.
Upamecano’s displays over the next year saw him nominated for the 2018 Golden Boy award, won by then-Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt, but his game has since gone up another level under the stewardship of Nagelsmann.
He has been a mainstay at the back, making 37 appearances in all competitions so far in 2019-20.
What have they said?
A number of current and former stars have heaped praise on the 21-year-old, with former team-mate Werner comparing him to Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng, and during the enforced break in action amid the COVID-19 outbreak, German football legend Lothar Matthaus talked up the youngster.
But for now, Upamecano seems perfectly happy where he is.
“I feel right at home here in Leipzig – the overall package is perfect,” said Upamecano after signing his new contract.
“We had good conversations with [chief executive] Oliver Mintzlaff, [sporting director] Markus Krosche and [head coach] Julian Nagelsmann, which showed to me that extending my contract was the right decision for me to make.
“Our young and hungry team is part of an ambitious club. I want to take the next step with Leipzig and reach our aims, because I’m convinced by the way we play our football.
“I have been in Leipzig for over three years and I have continued to improve alongside the team’s development. I want to carry on developing personally, and I think Julian Nagelsmann is a coach that can bring me to the next level.”
Areas of weakness?
Upamecano is quick and strong, a fine player to progress the ball out of defence – he has made more vertical runs with the ball in the Champions League this season than any other player left in the competition – and is excellent in the air.
The Frenchman is still developing, though, and there is certainly room for improvement in terms of his temperament.
This was evidenced in June, when Upamecano allowed frustration to get the better of him and he received a second booking two minutes before half-time in a Bundesliga clash with Paderborn.
Leipzig were in front at that stage yet Paderborn ultimately claimed a dramatic point when captain Christian Strohdiek struck in the 92nd minute, and team-mate Kevin Kampl was far from happy.
“It was completely unnecessary,” Kampl said to Sky Germany about defender Upamecano’s sending off. “We lead 1-0, have the game under control and then we weaken ourselves.”
Fortunately for Leipzig, the draw did not ultimately cost them a place in the Bundesliga’s top four.
The biggest challenge yet?
Though Upamecano has faced the fearsome attacks of Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, he is about to come up against two of the world’s finest forwards.
Neymar missed some golden opportunities in PSG’s quarter-final tie against Atalanta, but ultimately played a key part in both of their goals as the Ligue 1 champions snatched a late win.
Meanwhile, his partner in crime Mbappe is sure to start after coming on as a substitute in that win – with the youngster, who had been recovering from an injury sustained in July, going on to provide the assist for Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s winner.
Leipzig switched to a back four against Atletico Madrid, with Upamecano tasked with marking Diego Costa and, subsequently, Alvaro Morata – and putting in a brilliant display.
But with the trickery and guile of Neymar, and the pace of Mbappe – not to mention the poaching ability of Mauro Icardi – PSG will present an altogether different challenge.
However, if he manages to marshall Leipzig’s defence against some of world football’s most clinical finishers, then Upamecano may well confirm his status as one of the best defenders in world football.