Jules Koundé has had a meteoric rise but the Sevilla centre-back, 21, admits Romelu Lukaku could provide his biggest test yet.
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Sevilla's director of football Monchi famously keeps a tight grip on their purse strings, overseeing a scouting system that allows the club to combine promoting from within and spotting potential stars before big clubs do. So when they do spend, others take note.
Last summer, Sevilla broke the bank (well, authorised a club-record transfer), paying Bordeaux a reported €25m for a then 20-year-old centre-back. The tag would have been a heavy burden for some, but Jules Koundé has shouldered it effortlessly, augmenting his burgeoning reputation under Julen Lopetegui in a season that will conclude with Friday's UEFA Europa League final against Inter.
"It has been a lightning-quick rise," he tells UEFA.com when reminded that his first-team debut only came in 2018. "Coming to Sevilla was the best choice I could have made, a club where I could continue my development, a club with European ambitions. I worked hard to get to this level, but there are still lots and lots of things for me to do; I'm only at the start.
"When I arrived, I felt the coach's trust straight away, so even during the first few months when I wasn't starting games and there was someone else ahead of me, I wasn't worried. And when my chance came around, even if there were difficult moments, I knew that sooner or later things were going to go well for me."
Partner in crime
Koundé has formed a formidable centre-back partnership with another import from France, ex-Nantes man Diego Carlos, and Sevilla had the Liga's third-best defence in 2019/20. "We complement each other really well," he explains. "I like going into duels, but Diego is a bit stronger than me in that area. He can play out from the back, but let's just say that it's more at the forefront of my style of play!"
Koundé can evidently add the art of diplomacy to the skill set he has developed this season. Sevilla's game relies a lot on the full-backs attacking, so the 21-year-old has had to develop his acumen, keeping an eye on attacking right-back Jesús Navas's positioning and adjusting accordingly. He and Diego Carlos are no strangers to a forward drive, either. "I've made a lot of progress in terms of consistency of performance and, more importantly, focus."
The ball-playing defender will need plenty of that against Inter on Friday, when he and Diego Carlos come up against another formidable partnership: Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez. "Lukaku is one of the best forwards in the world. He's strong in physical terms but is also good with the ball at his feet and at knockdowns. He uses his body extremely well and is quick too. It's a level above anything else we've faced this season. We'll need to up our game."
With the prospect of a first senior trophy, Koundé needs no incentive, but he is also keenly aware of absent friends. "We have our supporters here [in spirit]," says the 21-year-old. "We'll try and reach them how we can, through the television, through a good performance. Bringing the trophy back to Seville would be great."