By Robin Bairner
Before a ball was kicked, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco were expected to run away clear at the summit of Ligue 1, yet as has often been the case in France over the course of the last five seasons, there is a surprise contender for the title.
That Lille are throwing significant punches in the race for the crown is not a shock in the context that they are one of the country’s biggest clubs – 45,000 are expected at Stade Pierre-Mauroy for Tuesday night’s clash with Olympique de Marseille – yet after failing to qualify for Europe last season and losing coach Rudi Garcia to Roma over the summer, a campaign of transition was anticipated.
|ENYEAMA THE INVINCIBLE
| 2013-14 LIGUE 1 RECORD
AV. GOALS CONCEDED PER GAME
LONGEST SHUTOUT STREAK
Yet Girard, who led Montpellier to the title ahead of Paris Saint-Germain two seasons ago, has worked quickly to implement the virtues that brought so much success to Stade de la Mosson.
Going forward, Lille are efficient, yet it is at the back that they truly excel, with 10-straight clean sheets attained since they last conceded a goal in early September.
This achievement is a combination of both individual excellence and exemplary teamwork, with the triad of goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and centre-backs Simon Kjaer and Marko Basa the foundation to this remarkable statistic.
Nigeria’s No.1 goalkeeper will go down in the record books this season as having one of the longest shutout streaks in Ligue 1. It has been 945 minutes since Dario Cvitanich of Nice beat him, which presently lags behind only PSG’s Salvatore Sirigu (950 minutes, 2012-13) and Bordeaux’s Gaetan Huard (1176 minutes in 1992-93).
Girard brought Enyeama in from the cold under Garcia and the 31-year-old has richly rewarded his coach with a string of brilliant reaction stops. This included a series of fine saves from Radamel Falcao as LOSC beat Monaco 2-0 in what has been an archetypal performance from the northerners this term.
The former Maccabi Haifa goalkeeper may boast a remarkable record, but he is not without his weaknesses, and that is where the two imposing centre-backs come in. Both have protected their goalkeeper - who can struggle with crossed balls - superbly.
Like players in an effective striking partnership complementing each other, Basa and Kjaer click in Lille's defence. The Montenegro international is a formidable force, especially so in the air, while the Dane, whose arrival from Wolfsburg must already be considered one of the best pieces of transfer business in Europe this season, is perhaps the more wizened of the duo.
Between them, they have policed the Lille box excellently and severely limited the number of opportunities opponents have had to test the weaker aspects of Enyeama’s game. It is certainly no surprise that LOSC have allowed only 8.5 shots a game – significantly fewer than any other side in Le Championnat.
Of course there is more to Lille’s defensive work than simply this core; the midfield, for example, have been excellent at pressing opponents and drawing them into mistakes, yet there can be little doubt that the key strength of Girard’s side lies in their back three.
He may not produce a style that is as thrilling as watching Eden Hazard and Gervinho remorselessly torment defenders, yet Girard has manufactured arguably the best defensive unit in Europe right now, and Champions League football next season is looking an increasing probability.
PSG remain the team to beat, but even scoring against Lille would be seen as an achievement right now.