By Robin Bairner
With Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco dominating the Ligue 1 title race as predicted pre-season, perhaps the story of the 2013-14 campaign has come at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, where Lille have spent much of the campaign established in third place.
Rene Girard’s arrival at LOSC marked the end of the swashbuckling days of the Rudi Garcia era and augured in a new more pragmatic approach, in which few have played a more pivotal role that Simon Kjaer.
When the rugged Dane arrived last summer in a €3 million (£2.4m) deal from Wolfsburg, he was already considered to be washed up by many pundits, yet the 25-year-old has made a startling return to the form that saw him so lauded when he made his top-level breakthrough with Palermo in 2008-09.
Kjaer’s career has not even reached his peak, yet the centre-back has already overcome the odds on several occasions to be heralded as one of the best defenders in France – and he is on his way back to being recognised as one of the best in his position in Europe.
“My impression was that they only hired me because they couldn’t hire players who were better than me. The best of them had turned the opportunity down,” he is quoted as saying in Rasmus Ankersen’s book, ‘The Goalmine Effect’.
Yet from these unlikely beginnings, Kjaer, who actually had a trial with Lille as a teenager, developed rapidly and would become the club’s greatest export, moving to Palermo and then to Wolfsburg, where things turned sour for the young defender.
A spell on loan at Roma was relatively unsuccessful, as the Dane wrestled with a new identity of being touted as one of the best young centre-halves in the game.
Lille took a gamble in the summer in signing Kjaer, whose latent potential was underlined by the fact he beat off Christian Eriksen, now of Tottenham, to be named his country’s outstanding young player in 2009.
Girard’s conservative mindset has suited Kjaer perfectly. Roma’s outrageously attacking attitude during his stay at the Stadio Olimpico had left defending a virtual impossibility but, in the former Montpellier boss, he would find someone who placed a premium on defensive stability, allowing him to regain both his confidence and his very best form.
It quickly became apparent that this new partnership would be successful. On his debut in a 1-0 home win over Lorient, Kjaer quickly slotted into the centre of the back four and read the match perfectly alongside Marko Basa, who has also been a tower of strength for Girard’s men this season.
|EUROPE'S DEFENSIVE MASTERS
Boasting a steely attitude that falls into step with the ethic of the club, Kjaer admits that he quickly felt at home at Lille.
“I love the mentality that prevails here,” he told La Voix du Nord. “I love coming to train, to work hard - that's my philosophy, you train as you would play. Sometimes we cannot play the best football but we always believe in one another. I think that is why we are third. It is very healthy when a club works like that.”
Perhaps the highlight of the season to date for Lille, who have lived up to their nickname of Les Dogues – the Mastiffs – by their tenacious and indefatigable approach this season, was a run of 11 straight games in which their rearguard was not breached.
This nearly earned goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama a Ligue 1 record, though his run was arrested after 1,062 minutes, ironically after the helpless Kjaer deflected a long-range shot from Landry Nguemo past his Nigerian counterpart.
While it was the shot-stopper who earned much of the praise due to that stunning run, the streak belonged to the team as a whole, with the centre-backs key figures.
Such has been the influence of the Dane, he has been linked with a move to Manchester United, where he could be the player an ageing defence is reconstructed around.
“I take this as a compliment,” he said, "but I want to stay here. If the board receive and accept an offer, I’ll take a look but I will not put any pressure on them in any direction. I am very happy here.”
Now Lille and Kjaer stand on the brink of a return to the Champions League next season. Just two points in the final two matches of the season will secure third and will seal a return to the qualifying stages of Europe’s elite competition.
How fitting it would be if Europe’s defensive kings were to secure it by a 10th 1-0 league win of the season against the champions.
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