Had England not been dumped out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, Wahbi Khazri might well still be starring in the Premier League.
The butterfly effect caused by the Three Lions’ stunning elimination in France, though, sparked a chain of events that saw the 27-year-old fall out of favour at Sunderland and ultimately wind up back in Ligue 1, where he had initially risen to prominence with Bordeaux.
After a painful period, Khazri, who was born in Ajaccio, rose through the academy at Bastia and is still imbued with the traditional Corsican battling spirit, has returned to the fore with a new look and a fresh attitude.
He had played a starring role under Sam Allardyce as the Black Cats avoided relegation to the Championship in the 2015-16 season, having moved to Wearside in January. But once ‘Big Sam’ moved to replace Roy Hodgson as England boss, he fell out of favour with David Moyes and subsequently Simon Grayson.
A loan move back to France was brokered to Rennes last season, and after a successful campaign in Brittany, the 42-cap Tunisia international is now spearheading Saint-Etienne’s push for Europe this time around.
He is not, however, the No.10 that Sunderland fans might remember him as; instead, he is being habitually deployed as a false no.9. It is a position that has suited the resurgent attacker, who has scored six league goals in 13 matches.
“I knew that I had qualities and I knew what I was capable of doing here,” he told reporters after a 2-0 home success over Reims, highlighting his confidence after coming off a campaign in which he scored a career-high nine in the top-flight last term.
While there was the possibility of remaining with Rennes and playing in Europe, he instead took heed of the advice of former Sunderland team-mate Yann M’Vila to move to Saint-Etienne, where he has struck up an instant relationship with head coach Jean-Louis Gasset.
“Yann wanted me to come at all costs,” he told But! “He told me great things about the club, the squad and the staff. He told me that if I signed, I wouldn’t regret it.
“It’s nice to be wanted, especially when the coach likes you. I had great feedback about him and my move has confirmed it. He’s done great work everywhere he’s been and really knows the game. As they say, he stinks of football!”
It was, however, Sabri Lamouchi at Rennes who first deployed him as a striker.
“That repositioning as a striker made me aware that he was doing me a lot of good,” he told RMC in October.
Gasset, however, has built on the foundations laid in Brittany.
“I’ve become mature,” Khazri, whose attitude was questioned during his time in England, admitted. “I’m more effective in my play and I drift less.”
This greater focus has been allied to his already formidable technical attributes, which were one of the factors that attracted Gasset to him in the first place.
“He’s always good over set pieces,” the coach said. “He can pass, he can score and he can win free kicks.”
Khazri has struck up a particularly effective relationship with former Newcastle playmaker Remy Cabella. After a slow start to the season, which the striker put down to heavy legs following the World Cup, where he featured with Tunisia, Sainte have become an increasingly dangerous offensive force due to this pair.
That they lie sixth, right in the heart of the European battle, owes much to the goals of Khazri, who has been reinvented since his return to France.
The Premier League’s loss has been Ligue 1’s gain.
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