It has not been the best season for the seeming permanent champions of Europe’s divisions. Juventus sits in third place in Serie A, Celtic require snookers in Scotland, and even Bayern Munich are facing a stern challenge in the Bundesliga. Most surprisingly, Paris Saint-Germain are playing catchup in Ligue 1with unfancied Lille occupying pole position.
Lille finished in fourth place last season when it came to points per game after the season was controversially curtailed. However, they haven’t won a major trophy since their memorable league and cup back in 2011. They were seen as contenders for a Champions League berth this season, but few expected them to be top of the table with 12 games remaining. As the run-in approaches, Lille have their title destiny in their own hands and are three points clear of Lyon and four points ahead of PSG.
Lille Lead The Way
Christophe Galtier arrived at Lille midway through the disastrous 2017-18 season and oversaw a late season revival that averted relegation. Galtier oversaw an impressive second season that resulted in Lille finish as runner-ups, albeit 16 points behind PSG. At the point Covid forced the season’s postponement, Lille were in fourth in the table; a single point behind Rennes. However, the French government ruled out play in the country until September, meaning Lille finished in fourth with the final 10 games cancelled.
With the loss of the Champions League football, Lille sold their star defender Gabriel and top scorer Victor Osimhen. However, they reinvested well, adding Ajax product Sven Botman. They beat a host of clubs to the signature of another hot prospect in Jonathan David. For the new season, Galtier tweaked his system into a 4-4-2; the switch worked with Lille’s strength coming from a mean backline that has conceded just 16 goals in 26 games. Botman is proving to be an outstanding buy at €8million, with two other young prospects in Domagoj Bradaric and Zeki Celik patrolling the flanks. It has all been anchored by 37-year old Jose Fonte with Benjamin Andre playing the holding role in midfield. Jonathan Bamba is enjoying a stellar campaign down the left wing with seven goals and eight assists and Jonathan Ikone is now a full French international.
The huge surprise has come up front, where 35-year old Burak Yilmaz has bagged nine goals. He arrived on free this summer while Yusuf Yazici has scored a further 13 goals (seven in the league). Record signing David started slowly, but has found his touch as of late. Galtier is developing a side that is based on the collective rather than individual stars, backed up by savvy investment in the squad.
A Season of Surprises
This season was always going to be strange, with few fans and both PSG and Lyon starting the new season right on the back of deep runs from the previous season’s Champions League. PSG started horrifically after losing their opening game 1-0 to Lens. It was followed by a bizarre encounter with Marseille that ended in a shocking home defeat. Five players, including Neymar, were red-carded for an injury time brawl.
Meanwhile, Lyon opened their campaign brightly with a 4-1 thrashing of Dijon, but lost to Montpellier. They then compiled four straight draws. For Lille, they have been on a consistent run, beating the division’s lesser lights and holding both Marseille and Lyon to draws through their first nine matches.
Lille struck a major blow in early December by beating Monaco, thanks to goals from David and Yazici. Two weeks later, they showed their mettle by holding PSG to a scoreless draw. It proved to be the final nail in Thomas Tuchel’s coffin, with the PSG coach dismissed just four days later. Lille entered the Christmas break on a high note, with Yilmaz grabbing the late winner against Montpellier.
When the season restarted, Lille suffered a surprise defeat at home to Angers. However, when many expected Lille to fade away, they went on a run of six consecutive wins to hold onto the top spot. Last week, PSG went through an inverse of their usual season; delivering a statement win in the Champions League with their 4-1 thrashing of Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The following league game resulted in a surprise 2-0 home defeat to a resurgent Monaco.
Lille is still tasked with a tough run in starting with Marseille at home next week. Further down the line they’ll face away trips to Lens, Monaco, Lyon and PSG. Last Sunday it was notable when they were pegged back to a 1-1 by Lorient it was the old campaigner Fonte who settled the nerves and got the vital second goal in a 4-1 win. The experience of Fonte, Andre and Yilmaz will be critical in a young, yet inexperienced squad.
Whichever way the title goes this season, it has dismissed critics who have labeled Ligue 1 as a ‘farmers league’. PSG remain favorites to make it eight titles in nine seasons, while Lyon are very much in the hunt. Lille have reinforced their reputation as one of Europe’s top talent factories, and if their defence continues to hold firm, they might just produce the Ligue 1 title.