Le50 2017 – Mariusz Stepinski
After two goals in his first five starts for his new club, Polish attacker Mariusz Stepinski made a very bright start to his first season in France – all the more impressive given the struggles FC Nantes were going through in the first part of the campaign. Stepinski had demonstrated his natural striker’s instinct and shown himself to be technically gifted – as evidenced by his cool, calm finish in a one-on-one situation with the Bastia goalkeeper in an early must-win game in week 8 to score the winning goal. He looked like the perfect foil for the more physically imposing Emiliano Sala in Nantes’ traditional 4-4-2.
Stepinski arrived off the back of successful 2015/16 season with Ruch Chorzow after 15 goals in 34 games in the polish Ekstraklasa. The purported transfer to Nantes dragged on, allowing Stepinski to begin the 16/17 season in Poland where he carried on his good form, netting three times in five league games before eventually making the move to the west of France. These goalscoring exploits had already seen him spend time in France during the summer as a part of the Poland squad at Euro 2016. Alas, the competition up front was such that he wouldn’t play a single minute in the tournament.
Eventually arriving in France towards the end of August, Nantes having beaten off competition from Legia Warsaw and Anderlecht in order to land Rene Girard’s number one target for a sum of around 2 million euros, Stepinski made his debut in a shock 3-0 home loss to newly-promoted Metz in September.
Under Girard he would start nearly every game for his new club, with a moderate amount of success. He opened his account for Nantes in his second match away at Nancy which preceded his finish at home to Bastia. He then came off the bench to equalise at home to Toulouse in a match mainly remembered for off-field troubles rather than the result.
It was in this period of the season that the wheels fell spectacularly off Nantes’ wagon. A 6-0 shellacking at home to Lyon saw Girard moved on with FCN languishing in 19th place with a meagre 13 points from 15 games. Former Portugal international Sergio Concecaio came in after managerial spells in Portugal and Belgium.
Concecaio’s first game in charge was at home to Montpellier in the Coupe de la Ligue and the Polish striker’s close-range finish saw FC Nantes’ new era begin with a convincing win and a passage to the quarter-finals of the competition. An assist would follow in the subsequent league game at Angers. Stepinski began 2017 with a brace away to Blois in the Coupe de France.
The undoubted highlight of Stepinski’s season came at the beginning of February when Olympique de Marseille came to the Beaujoire. Nantes won a pulsating game 3-2 in a red-hot atmosphere harking back to the 2013/14 period in which les Canaris were promoted. After taking an early lead through Diego Carlos, Nantes were well on top when Stepinski illustrated the talent that he possesses.
An early cross from Lucas Lima found Stepinski’s chest with three defenders around him on the penalty spot. A pirouette followed as he flicked the ball up in the air, before delicately placing the ball into the net as it came down through the forest of navy shirts, leaving the goalkeeper motionless as Nantes took a two-goal lead. This was a simply wonderful individual goal, getting the better of the three defenders plus the goalkeeper.
Ordinarily, this would be the beginning of something for a player; however there would be no encore for Stepinski. After the Marseille game he would play only a cumulative 59 minutes of Ligue 1 football dotted across four games in the remaining three months of the season. The probably explanation for this is the January arrival of Burkina Faso striker Préjuce Nakalouma who made his debut in the home game against Dijon the week after the visit of Marseille. Nakalouma made an instant impact scoring six goals in eleven games, and thus took Stepinski’s place in the starting eleven starting all bar one game from late February until the season’s end.
As a 22-year-old footballer Stepinski is arriving at a stage of his career when regular playing time is becoming more of an imperative than a luxury. A mooted loan move away from Nantes has been talked about and there is a level of inevitable speculation about his and others’ futures at FCN given how he and the club in general finished their seasons.
Given his performances he does not deserve to be discarded. His profile would surely interest any manager as FC Nantes begin yet another new era, hoping to build upon a remarkable 7th place finish.