, October 15, 2021

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Lille are still ahead of PSG and top of Ligue 1, but how did they get there?


  •   3 min reads
Lille Ligue 1 title odds
Timo Weah and Jonathan David celebrate a goal against Ajax. Ian Langsdon/EPA.

Only once in the last nine years have Paris Saint-Germain been toppled as the dominant force in French soccer. This happened in 2017 when Monaco stumbled across something of a golden generation, with the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Fabinho, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar driving the principality club to the semi finals of the Champions League and the Ligue 1 title.

Four years on and PSG once again face a challenge from a relative outsider, with Lille currently sitting three points clear at the top of the French top flight. Most expected the capital club to catch Christophe Galtier’s side as the season progressed, especially after the firing of Thomas Tuchel and the hiring of Mauricio Pochettino. That hasn’t happened — yet.

While there’s little doubt that there is more talent at the Parc des Princes, Lille have been Ligue 1’s most consistent side this season, losing two of the 29 fixtures they have played. Galtier’s team boast the best defensive record in the division, having conceded just 17 times, and have raised their game when it has mattered most - they are undefeated in Ligue 1 against PSG, Monaco, Marseille and Lyon this season.

Lille have been a picture of efficiency. They are a well-balanced side that doesn’t rely on one single individual to win them matches - Burak Yilmaz is their top scorer with nine goals this season, ranking him 12th in the list of Ligue’s most prolific finishers. Mbappe, for some context, has 18 goals for the campaign.

This isn’t to say Lille don’t have quality in attack, though. Canadian striker Jonathan David and Jonathan Ikone have forged a strong partnership up front, with Galtier most commonly deploying his side in a 4-4-2 formation. Jonathan Bamba has also impressed in his role on the left wing, contributing six goals and eight assists in 29 league appearances. US international Timothy Weah is also returning to form after a torn hamstring kept the midfielder out for over half a year.

Galtier has also some talented players not called Jonathan, with Brazilian Luiz Araujo another who has caught the eye this term. But as already referenced, it is in defence where Lille have been strongest. Experience through the likes of Benjamin Andre and former Southampton centre back Jose Fonte has helped some of the younger players at the club.

Sven Botman is one of Lille’s most prized assets, with the 21-year-old reportedly on Liverpool’s radar. Indeed, the defender, who is surely to become a full Netherlands international before too long, could be the next superstar-in-the-making to use the French club as a stepping stone after Eden Hazard, Gabriel Magalhaes, Nicolas Pepe, Lucas Digne and Divock Origi.

A trip to the French capital for a clash with PSG on April 3 is shaping up to be something of a title decider, with Lille also facing difficult tests away to Lyon and Lens before the season is out. After a 3-0 defeat to PSG in the French Cup this week, there may not be the parity between the clubs that many hoped, but that doesn't mean Lille should be completely discounted.

“In France, Paris remains the most dangerous opponent,” former Bayern Munich midfielder Renato Sanches explained about his team’s title chances.

“Can we win the championship? We play for that. Nobody is saying the opposite. It would be great, but we are still far from it. I feel my team are capable of achieving it. In a few matches, if we are still in the final sprint and in the same position, we will probably say to ourselves that we can go to the end. We have to defend our first place. It will be difficult, we are aware of that.”

Unlike Monaco four years ago, Lille aren’t at the top of Ligue 1thanks to a golden generation. Their success is one of pragmatism, good recruitment and good coaching. PSG’s stuttering form has also helped, with the door open for an outsider to challenge the Qatari-owned outfit for the French title.

Lyon are also in a good position to make a title charge, with Rudi Garcia’s side just three points off the pace being set by Lille. The Ligue 1 title race has been something of a procession in recent years, but that is certainly not the case this season. In fact, the French top flight could be where the greatest drama in Europe’s top five leagues is witnessed between now and the summer. It could finish with a new champion being crowned.

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