“When Sochaux’s Martin, Ideye and Maurice-Belay found themselves in a three-on-one against Nkoulou with a match-winning 4-2 goal at their feet right at the end of the game, the goose looked well and truly cooked for Monaco,” wrote L’Equipe‘s Jean-Pierre Rivais in his match report on Monaco’s Coupe de France quarter-final with Sochaux on Wednesday.
“But the young Cameroonian somehow recovered the ball and, at the end of Monaco’s counter-attack, Pino popped up at the right moment to beat Richert and make it 3-3…”
Nicolas N’Koulou’s timely interception may have owed more to luck than judgement, but it laid the foundations for a 4-3 extra-time win and was further proof of his growing importance to a club for whom he has made 43 league appearances over the last two seasons.
The dreadlocked teenager has demonstrated his versatility in Monaco’s last two games – the cup win over Sochaux and the goalless Ligue 1 draw at Grenoble – by stepping back into the centre of defence to cover for suspended team-mate Cédric Mongongu. Mongongu has been Guy Lacombe’s preferred partner for Sébastien Puygrenier in central defence this term, with N’Koulou operating in the kind of deep midfield role favoured by his international team-mate Alex Song. He plays at centre-back for Cameroon though and, much like England’s Jack Rodwell, it is the role he is expected to master as his career progresses.
“It’s always better to be versatile,” he said earlier this month. “It’s what allows me to play a lot at the moment. If I hadn’t been able to play in different positions, I definitely wouldn’t have played all these games this season. I’m young, I’m learning about different positions and I try to do my best in every situation.”
The 19-year-old, who turns 20 on Saturday, joined Monaco in January 2008 from Douala’s Kadji Sports Academy (whose alumni include Inter striker Samuel Eto’o and current Espanyol goalkeeper Carlos Kameni) and after shining for Monaco’s title-winning reserves he was called into Cameroon’s squad at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“I watched his performances at the Olympic Games and even in positions that are not his own, such as defensive midfield or right-back, he was very good,” said N’Koulou’s former boss at Monaco, Ricardo. “And on an emotional level there are no problems with him, which is important.”
He made his competitive first-team bow for Monaco in the 2-0 league win over Lorient in September that year and is since rumoured to have attracted interest from Lyon and Arsenal. Marseille were reportedly poised to make a bid earlier this month, although N’Koulou has now committed himself to the Stade Louis II until 2012.
His first senior Cameroon call-up arrived in November 2008, in a friendly against South Africa, while his assured performances for Monaco convinced national coach Paul Le Guen that he could afford to leave Tottenham defender Sébastien Bassong behind when his squad set off to the Africa Cup of Nations in January. N’Koulou played at the back in all four of Cameroon’s games in Angola, having made five appearances in the final stage of their successful World Cup qualifying campaign.
He will test his defensive credentials against the likes of Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Catania’s Takayuki Morimoto after Cameroon were drawn alongside the Netherlands, Denmark and Japan in World Cup Group E, but he has already proven his worth against world-class opposition after keeping Marco Borriello and Serie A top scorer Antonio Di Natale quiet in the 0-0 draw with Italy earlier this month.
The World Cup will be the biggest occasion to date in a career that promises much. Wherever N’Koulou plays, there will be plenty of interested parties watching.