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'They are a real team' - Lille on verge of snatching Ligue 1 title with four ex-PSG players

11:00 AM GMT+4 16/05/2021
Jonathan Ikone Timothy Weah Boubakary Soumare Mike Maignan Lille GFX
Christophe Galtier's side are set to become the third team in the 10-year QSI era to deny PSG the championship - and they will be worthy winners

With two rounds of fixtures in Ligue 1 remaining, the table has an unfamiliar look.

Lille are top, poised to win their first title in 10 years, when a young Eden Hazard was still strutting his stuff in France’s north alongside Gervinho, Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Debuchy, and just their fourth overall.

They sit three points clear of Paris Saint-Germain ahead of the penultimate round of matches and need only four points from a home encounter against Saint-Etienne and a trip to Angers to seal their success. It is in their hands and should complete what Saint-Etienne boss Claude Puel has called a “tour de force”.

To the south west, PSG will look on with a sense of frustration. Just as Kingsley Coman, one of their former academy players, headed Bayern Munich to Champions League glory in August, they are set to be denied another Ligue 1 crown by a quartet of their own.

Mike Maignan, Boubakary Soumare, Jonathan Ikone and Timothy Weah all made the trip directly from PSG to Lille, costing a mere €15 million (£13m/$18m) between them. All have had their part to play in Lille’s road to improbable glory.

But if PSG must once again answer questions about their handling of youth players, Lille deserve praise for their character in what has been the most trying of campaigns.

In the summer, they sold two key members of their squad. Off went Victor Osimhen, their top scorer last season with 13 Ligue 1 goals, to Napoli for a fee around the €70m (£60m/$85m) mark – an astonishingly good piece of business given the general deflation of the transfer market in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, while Gabriel Magalhaes joined Arsenal.

Lille fought hard to secure Jonathan David from Gent as Osimhen’s replacement, but the lesser-heralded arrivals of Burak Yilmaz and Sven Botman were the true transfer market masterstrokes of former sporting director Luis Campos.

Yilmaz joined up on a free transfer, with scepticism rife over how a 35-year-old forward might thrive having barely played any of his career outside Turkey. The answer is quite superbly. Not only has he contributed 15 goals and five assists in just 26 games, his leadership of the team down the finish straight has been critical.

Meanwhile, Botman was signed from Ajax having never played a first-team match for the Amsterdam club. He was touted for a move to Liverpool in the January transfer window and now there are suggestions that Manchester United have him on their shortlist. If and when he does move, it will be for several times the €8m (£6.9m/$9.7m) that Lille spent on him.

Both can be considered among the signings of the season, not just in France, but in Europe.

Meanwhile, Christophe Galtier’s side have been forced to cope with a succession of off-field issues in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The collapse of the Mediapro television deal left the club in financial turmoil, with rumours of a fire-sale of players in January.

Merlyn Partners, the new owners, held their nerve. Instead of offloading players, they injected funds into the club to ease the short-term debt and allowed them to retain the core of the playing staff.

While Lille were positioned top shortly before Christmas, when the deal was made, even at that point it was largely inconceivable that they would go on and lift the crown.

Throughout all this, LOSC’s squad have shown a united front. While a handful of standout performers have been highlighted, in truth this has been a squad effort, from the outstanding Jose Fonte in defence to the tigerish Benjamin Andre in midfield and the enigmatic Yusuf Yazici in attack.

“They’re a real team,” Rennes boss Bruno Genesio said.

Galtier has moulded a team of players that complement one another impressively but this is also a versatile side capable of playing in several different manners.

“It’ll be us who have lost it, not them who have won it,” grumbled Kylian Mbappe on Wednesday.

But while the PSG star gets so much right on the field, he could scarcely be more wrong with his assessment of the season.

Lille’s merit as champions is unquestionable. They are undefeated against their top-four rivals, having ground out critical wins away to PSG and Lyon over the course of the last six weeks.

“I look at the contribution of the players coming off the bench, they’re 200 per cent involved,” said Ludovic Obraniak, a member of Lille’s previous title winning team.

“Ten years ago, we also had difficult matches but we won by the smallest margins. I see a similarity in this group, which has soul.

“They’ve been built with consistency and complementarity. They’ve not been quite as good since the start of the year, but despite the pressure from the pursuers, they’ve managed to keep the lead. They have baraka [the luck].”

When they were expected to waver, they held firm, aided by the formidable togetherness of the squad – something Mbappe and his PSG team-mates could learn from.

Galtier’s group may have cost just a fraction of what Neymar alone cost PSG, yet they have an intangible strength that the Parisians still lack and have shown that Ligue 1 should never be considered a one-horse race.