The Maxim Choupo-Moting episode in Stoke City history was already surreal enough without him turning into a Champions League hero.
The Stoke team he played in during 2017/18 is not and was never going to be remembered fondly, collapsing to a self-inflicted relegation amid a series of transfer howlers.
Increasingly regular and intolerable humiliations under Mark Hughes – Manchester City away, Tottenham away, Chelsea away, Tottenham at home… – were turned into a more organised sleepwalk into the Championship under Paul Lambert.
Two years on and it’s still horrible.
There are a few players still cast as villains, with prime clown Jese Rodriguez, who joined with a shout about ambition but then spent more time in Madrid than the Potteries. His crowning moment when he was AWOL from training and trolled supporters with a selfie of his lie-in.
Saido Berahino turned up for a match on the wrong day – or so it would seem according to social media posts by his teammates Choupo-Moting and Kurt Zouma. And they were his mates. Either way, by that point, Berahino was… not a favourite, nor reliable. There were doubts about whether how long he was going to be a professional footballer.
The rest weren’t particularly bad boys. There were bad signings, like Kevin Wimmer, but he wasn’t a trouble maker. Hugging Spurs players on the pitch when Stoke fans are baying for blood after a Wembley whitewash was just plain stupid and naive rather than naughty.
There was an overwhelming feeling that too many were just a bit too cowardly. Not too nice, just too lily-livered. So unlike the Stoke from Arsene Wenger’s nightmares. There were too few prepared to take responsibility, too few trying to galvanise the group.
There was a gaping chasm where confidence should be. Glen Johnson later claimed that players were tipping relegation during pre-season.
One man who could move between factions in the changing room with genuine respect for his ability was Xherdan Shaqiri – and then he did an interview with a Swiss magazine saying the squad was useless.
But, to the point: Choupo-Moting.
He clearly had skill enough for Premier League level. He was an experienced Bundesliga campaigner by that point.
An eye-catching cameo as a sub at Everton on his Stoke debut was swiftly followed by two goals against Manchester United at the bet365 Stadium; a first-half effort from close-range to open the scoring and a second-half header to make it 2-2.
He celebrated with an elaborate dance routine next to Zouma and all seemed well with the world.
The new boy was funny, charismatic and clever.
“Even if he hasn’t scored,” said Hughes, “I thought he was excellent in his general play.
“We know that if we can get the vast majority of our top players onto the pitch we can really test teams if we play to our potential and capacity because we have invested a lot of money in our first 11.”
Charlie Adam added, with a bit more detail: “Expensive free transfers. Kurt Zouma has come in on probably good wages from Chelsea. Fletcher, Choupo-Moting, free transfers on good wages, Jese from PSG. It doesn’t look like we’ve spent a lot of money on signings but we have on wages and agents fees. That’s just the way the game is.”
Choupo-Moting’s next goal didn’t come until late November in a draw at Brighton, then one against West Bromwich Albion just before Christmas.
And the problem for Stoke and Choupo-Moting was that he had been brought in to replace a player who was contributing a whole lot more than that.
Marko Arnautovic had been a poseur like Choupo, yes, but he had also been a bulldozer and talismanic figure who scored goals and made them.
Without Arnautovic, Stoke were signifcantly more limp going forward. Add that to the disaster at the back as Hughes experimented with wing-backs without having wing-backs and everything was spiralling out of control.
Hughes got the bullet in January and the rest of the season was a long limp over the line.
They only won two of the 15 games under Lambert – his first and last, when they were already relegated – and yet, infuriatingly, they were somehow still only three points adrift of safety by the time it all finished.
Thrown away points against Brighton, Leicester, Burnley and Watford and Bournemouth are still cursed.
Choupo’s last act in a Stoke shirt was to score, a rare moment of bravery as he dived in to equalise as a substitute in the snow against Everton in the 77th minute, when Stoke had been down to 10 men. He couldn’t continue and Everton nicked a later winner.
He then declined pain killing injections through the run-in and didn’t play again.
Peter Crouch later recalled: “It’s obvious to everyone if someone doesn’t fancy it, that they’ll go up and go, ‘Oh, I just can’t quite get there…’
“It’s the turtle neck, it goes back into the shell. Instead of extending your neck it goes back into your shell. I know a turtle when I see one.
“We had a player at Stoke, Choupo-Moting, a fantastic player. So much ability.
“He was 6ft 4in and he could dominate a centre-half if he wanted to but with that technique and flair that he had, I just felt that he didn’t want to head the ball, really.”
It was clear Choupo was not happy when he returned for pre-season under Gary Rowett, losing his rag in the tunnel at anyone who would listen. Still, his dad – in replica Stoke kit – came to cheer him on in friendlies in France.
He managed to wriggle out of his contract with two years remaining, leaving by mutual consent – and, on the same day, joining Paris-St Germain, where his old Mainz boss Thomas Tuchel was on the look out for squad depth.
There have been sniggers about such an unlikely switch when that same club were spending incredible fees for Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.
But it was Choupo – who has spent much of his two seasons in Paris on the fringes – who was the one who changed the game last night in a Champions League quarter-final against Atalanta.
He came on at 1-0 down in the 80th minute, set up the equaliser in the 90th minute then scored the winner within three insane minutes. He was mobbed by his more fashionable teammates and lauded around the world on social media.
He has written himself into PSG folklore – and contributed to a bonkers bit of trivia provided by Rich Jolly: “If Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting plays in the next round, it will mean the relegated Stoke squad of 2017-18 had players who played in the 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2019 & 2020 Champions League semi-finals.”
He provided the list in full too.
That’s: 2005 Johnson 2007 Crouch 2008 Fletcher 2009 Fletcher 2010 Bojan 2011 Fletcher 2013 Shaqiri 2015 Jese 2016 Jese 2019 Shaqiri 2020 Choupo-Moting.
Gary Lineker quipped: “Choupo-Moting with the winner. But could he do it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke?”
The answer to that, unfortunately, is not as well as Stoke needed and certainly not as well as Marko Arnautovic.
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