One To Watch: Monaco's 21-Year old Star Marcos Lopes
For a good portion of Manchester City fans, Marcos "Rony" Lopes is the one that got away. Whilst current young starlets Phil Foden and Brahim, fresh from making their first-team debuts, are tipped for greatness, for a while it looked as though Lopes would be the one to well and truly make the breakthrough and be the standard-bearer for the club's revamped academy set-up.
Having signed from Benfica, 16-year old Lopes went on tour with the first-team in 2012 and shone for the club's youth sides - notably scoring a hat-trick against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Youth League.
On 3 January 2013, he became the club's youngest ever goalscorer when he found the net in his competitive debut - a 3-0 third round FA Cup win over Watford at the Etihad Stadium.
A year later and he made his first ever start, shining in a 3-0 League Cup semi-final second leg win over West Ham at Upton Park. The nifty left-footed attacker recorded two assists and deservedly picked up the Man of the Match.
There was a real buzz surrounding Rony but it never quite happened for him City, where he made just five appearances. He was loaned out to Lille in Ligue One in 2014 and the following season, despite being promoted to the first-team under Manuel Pellegrini, remained in France, signing for Monaco in a £9 million permanent deal.
He had to bide his time, and head to Lille on loan for a second time, but Lopes made the most out of the series of high-profile departures the Principality club experienced in the summer, and has impressed in his 15 outings for the Ligue One champions.
Even better, he's now a full Portugal international after representing his country at various youth levels and is inevitably not resting on his laurels after his City career never fully worked out.
SPORTbible caught up with the 21-year old to talk about his recent international bow, his run in the Monaco side this term, his time at City and not making the grade, his strong connection with the City fans, current youngster Phil Foden and much more.
SPORTbible: How proud a moment was it for you to make your Portugal debut? Is it your career highlight so far?
Marcos Lopes: My first cap for Portugal was surely one of the best moments of my career. I got 64 caps for the youth teams of Portugal, from U16 to U21s and this was certainly the top. But still, it was only a friendly match and I'm eager to keep working hard enough to be called again in the future and eventually be part of a major competition with Portugal. That's my next goal in what comes to the national team.
SPORTbible: After playing with Benfica as a youngster, you moved to Manchester City in 2011 and came through the ranks before making five first-team appearances as well as holding the record for being the youngest ever goalscorer. How would you assess your time there?
Marcos Lopes: My time at City was simply great. I got to learn a lot, to evolve my game and to appreciate life as a professional in a great club. Had the chance to meet top professionals, great mates and friends and, as important as that, to feel the support of Manchester City fans. It's amazing how they keep on motivating me even after all these years since I left. I'm really proud of them and proud of the club that City has become.
SPORTbible: A lot of people tipped you as being the one to really make the grade at City and force your way into the first-team. Why do you think it never worked out? Do you think you should have had more opportunities?
Marcos Lopes: As a footballer I have to be ready to pack at any time, I understand that. Of course after "graduating" at City, I had the dream of playing in the first team. But Man City has great, world class players and it's not easy for a youngster to make it through just like that. Pressure for results is high, so I understood that I wouldn't have many possibilities to grab playing time and improve my game at City.
Meanwhile, Lille came up with a loan offer, I did well in France and Monaco came with a good offer to City. I couldn't say "no" to Monaco's offer and project. They decided to invest in me and here I am, giving back to the club all the faith and belief they rested in me almost three years ago.
SPORTbible: You joined Monaco in 2015 and were loaned out to Lille, for the second time in your career, six months into your time there. Do you feel like your game is suited to the football in Ligue One?
Marcos Lopes: LOSC was a very important club as I had the chance to play regularly and improve my game in different areas. Ligue 1 is extremely competitive and the style of play is not so different from England, that's why it is one of the most important markets for Premier League clubs. I feel it is very physical and tactically demanding, but with enough room for more technical players. It has been great for me to play here, I've grown a lot.
SPORTbible: This season, with a number of key players leaving Monaco in the summer, you've seen a lot more game-time. Naturally it's been difficult to replicate last season's performances but how much do you enjoy playing in this team?
Marcos Lopes: Monaco is the current champion of France and that says it all. My teammates and technical staff are great and we play positive attacking football, which favours my style. So far I'm having regular play time and have scored a few goals both domestically and in the Champions League. I'm on the top of the assists list of Ligue 1 and I feel more comfortable in the defensive process. So far, the results have been good. We weren't expecting this european campaign, but the season is long and there's still a lot to run and to win.
SPORTbible: You still have a good relationship with City supporters, particularly on social media. They still talk about your performance against West Ham in the League Cup! How much do you appreciate their support?
Marcos Lopes: Ahahah! City fans are simply amazing. They have pushed me forward since I came to the club till today. They are the strongest pillar of the club and the way they welcomed me to the City family will never be forgotten by me. I keep on cheering for the club and watch every match I can!
SPORTbible: Could we ever see you return to City? Do you still have ambitions of playing in England?
Marcos Lopes: That's very unfair to ask... I'm happy at Monaco and proud to be part of this club. Now my only focus is to do my best here and fight for titles in France. The future is bright, but it's the present that really counts!
SPORTbible: There's a lot of buzz surrounding Phil Foden at the moment after he made his debut against Feyenoord. Were you aware of him when you were at City?
Marcos Lopes: Yes, Phil was in the academy and I remember him well. I'm happy that he is breaking through and I wish him all the best!
SPORTbible: What advice would you give to a young footballer coming through the ranks?
Well, I don't really feel qualified to give advice to anyone, I'm only 21 and still have a lot to learn from everyone!
SPORTbible: Who was your football idol growing up?
Marcos Lopes: Well, Ronaldo - the Brazilian - was probably my first idol and that's how I got my nickname Rony. More recently, it's impossible not to mention Cristiano and Messi as they have dominated all tops of all charts. Great examples of professionalism and that hard work pays off.
SPORTbible: Finally, what is the best piece of advice you received and who gave it to you?
I receive many advices and I listen to all: my parents, my coaches, my friends... as they want the best for me and give me their point of view. It's impossible to highlight one advice... especially taking into consideration that I expect to keep on learning every day more and more. I have a feeling the best is still yet to come!