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FEATURE | How Wahbi Khazri dragged Rennes from mid-table mediocrity to Europa League contenders

Sunderland fans won’t have many fond memories of Wahbi Khazri. They probably won’t have many fond memories of recent times full stop.

But the Tunisian playmaker, like many French exports to the North-East, did not capture the imagination that his arrival could have hinted at. Like Florian Thauvin at Newcastle, the outlay was large – €11m in Khazri’s case – but the return was negligible.

Glimmers, such as a stunning volley against Chelsea back in 2016, showed that there was talent in there somewhere. A flair player, he found himself at odds with a club permanently in transition; a factor that left them fighting from the rear-guard before their eventual, almost inevitable, relegation.

The now 27-year-old made 35 league appearances for the Black Cats, scoring just three times, having made 21 starts. Last season, as Sunderland finally tumbled out of the top flight, he was shunned by David Moyes – something he feels proved costly for the club.

“He [Moyes] didn’t trust me,” Khazri told L’Équipe in an interview in December.

“I wasn’t in his plans but the fact that we finished with 20 points (24 points in fact) tells you about him. He just did not like my style of play, it happens. If you do not change a winning team, you won’t change a losing team. I’m not saying that I would have changed the club on my own but I could have helped the team.”

Evidently Khazri’s is not the current West Ham manager’s biggest supporter, but for Black Cats fans, when they look across the channel to see how the Tunisian is performing on loan at Rennes, there may be a few who feel the Scot was too quick to dismiss his talents.

Khazri has spearheaded Rennes’ revival. The Bretons now sit fifth in Ligue 1 – partly aided by the congested nature of the chasing pack to the drop zone throughout this season – but a remarkable position nonetheless, considering that when Khazri joined the club, Rennes were second bottom and winless.

Things did not pick up immediately. Khazri had been brought in by beleaguered boss Christian Gourcuff, who came under-fire for his misuse of a side brimming with young talent. After nine matches, Rennes had still just one win to their name – a Khazri-debut-inspired shock at the Velodrome against Marseille, where the Tunisian ran proceedings, etching his name onto the scoresheet too with an audacious back-heeled finish.

Despite an upturn in fortunes, Gourcuff was axed, and under his successor, Franco-Tunisian Sabri Lamouchi, Khazri has pushed Rennes back up the table.

The forward found himself leading the line for Rennes, a position in which he is not known. But he made the most of unusual circumstances, offering the Les Rouges et Noires a much-needed outlet, and chipping in with vital goals as key players like Ismaila Sarr and Yoann Gourcuff through injury and Faitout Maoussa, struggled to find their feet.

He has scored three times as many league goals for Rennes as he did for Sunderland, taking his tally to nine goals from 18 appearances this season. They have come on the big occasions too; most notably against Nantes in the Breton derby, where his doubled inspired a much-needed win.

His form in an unfamiliar role even led his manager to compare him to PSG’s prolific Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani.

“For us, he is the ‘Breton Cavani’,” Lamouchi said in December before facing the champions-elect.

“That he plays centre-forward, we know that it is something that cannot last in the long term, but he does it so well in the fact of being free, to be able to look for solutions by himself, to stand out. He has intelligence and mischief. Every time he touches the ball, something happens.”

His form at club level will be something he hopes to take into the World Cup this year with Tunisia.

As one of the only well-known Carthage Eagle names playing their trade in Europe, much of his nation’s hopes will be pinned on his shoulders, although they face a tough ask against Belgium, Panama and England.

But his form suggests he could be set for a stand-out tournament, one to add to the sense of ‘what might have been’ for Sunderland, and potentially for England supporters too when they face-off in Volgograd in June.

His high wages and the lack of a release clause have meant Rennes have played down their chances to sign him permanently, something they will undoubtedly pursue this summer.

Yet if Sunderland go down to League 1, and Khazri becomes available at a knock-down price, the concern for Lamouchi and co won’t just be the fee, but the interest from other top clubs, especially if he performs well in Russia.

“I honestly think it will be very complicated [to keep him], Wahbi is having a remarkable season, perhaps the best ever for him in Ligue 1,” Lamouchi told L’Équipe last month.

“If Rennes manages to keep him, it will be extraordinary, but with the season as it is, it would not surprise me that he really wants to reach the tops clubs because he has the possibilities. For us, yes, we can never say never, there may be a possibility.”

After the Easter break, it would not be wide of the mark to say Ligue 1 has played host to a number of Premier League revivals of late, from Thauvin at Marseille to Balotelli at Nice and more recently Mathieu Debuchy at Saint-Étienne.

But in Brittany, Rennes have their own resurrected star man, one whose rebirth will compound the misery in the North East, but will also offer a menacing threat for England in the summer.

For now, though, Rennes will be hoping he can maintain his good form, and power them on to the Europa League.

[Image: 20 Minutes]

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