PSG do not hold the keys to unlock the Ligue 1 title race. Read that again. Let it sink in. Let us remind you - we are in 2021. Pinch yourselves perhaps. It is Lille who are now champions elect in France. In the so-called farmers league no less. Lille Olympique Sporting Club have one hand on the elusive Ligue 1 trophy. The football club from the northern most region of France has been mostly anonymous in the footballing land. A land of the Lyons and the Marseilles, even the Monacos. The land whose football is now so strongly monopolised by Paris Saint-Germain. It is almost unthinkable for any other club to lay claim to the premier domestic footballing prize.
Certainly not Lille. They have only won this trophy three times in their history. That is how many PSG have won in the last three years. In fact, PSG have more than double of Lille's total Ligue 1 triumphs in the last eight years itself. Many teams dominate leagues over certain periods. Juventus have done it in Italy. Bayern Munich continue to do so in Germany. However, there is special attention - almost putrid in its outpour - paid to PSG's hegemony.
It is difficult to quantify the current situation. For the French - imagine a vineyard known for its sparkling wine suddenly morphing into a brewery. If you are agrarian - imagine seedling for wheat only to end up harvesting potatoes from the same plantation. For the everyday football fan - imagine Tottenham Hotspur considered big enough to join the European Super League. In simple words, these things simply do not happen.
Paris the city saved PSG the football club
It is easier to understand the putrid outpour though. It eventually does come down to culture and ideology. Football, at its core, still belongs to fans. It is played by human beings of flesh and blood. These players wear crests on the heart that represent a spirit, a fraternity and a way of life. There are stories of valour and integrity within these designs. Eventually, it comes down to a battle of emotions. A battle of morality - what is right and wrong. How non-verbally and non-contractually we decide our game should be played. In the spirit of fairness and competition.
Why this hatred for PSG then? They compete in a league governed by a fair and central authority. They compete in games of 90 minutes comprising the same rules. 3 points for victory, 1 for stalemate and none for defeat. But is it really fair? After all, PSG's dominance bears a close resemblance to the Qatari takeover. The rise and rise of the club can be very easily traced to the investment of the oil-state.
The tale of one city
It was a convenient move too. Football is an open market. The Qatari owners might well have picked Lille. But they did not. They picked Paris. As much the city as the football club. Make no mistake, there was nothing more redeeming about PSG for the QSI investors than the idea of Paris as a major European city.
Every other major European capital or financial hub hosts big and historic football clubs. Talk about Rome, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, London, Manchester, Amsterdam, Munich or any other.
It just makes sense that the fashion capital of the world, the crown jewel of big cities to have a crown jewel of a football team. This is where QSI stepped in. The equation was simple - spend more money to buy better players and win trophies. It creates an unequal playing field and suffocates competition before the game has even started.
All the stars PSG have accumulated over the years. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani, David Beckham, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and so many more. These players have all worn that PSG crest because someone from a different corner of the globe - with rich cash reserves - saw Paris the city as a great investment opportunity. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Seine River, the tasteful cafes, the mystical bridges, the mesmerizing architecture and all the myriad lanes and bylanes of the indescribably charming city.
Paris has an allure difficult to miss, even more difficult to dislike. And yet, it fails to justify - to the larger world and even the rest of the country - how their competitive league was snatched from them.
Lille and a tale of two cities
Thus, it is rather poetic that another city comes up to challenge PSG. The city that has historically been besieged is now the one to siege France's footballing powerhouse. Against the odds too. And that is once again a reminder that money can buy almost everything. Almost. And football finds a way to fight back. To retaliate and to resist. That is why it is poetic for Lille to emerge as the city and as the team to send PSG into a frenzy of questions and humiliation.
There is a little bit of romance in this story. Perhaps this romance of our beautiful game outdoes that inherently present even in the romantic capital of Paris. There is something unquestionably charming about resistance against authority. And Lille the city is steeped in resistance. A visit to the Grand-Place in the central square of Lille gives a tremendous view of the "Column of Goddess" erected to commemorate the spirit of the city's resistance during the Austrian invasion of 1792.
And this run of Lille has given rise to some Gods. Ones who will remain forever entrenched in the hearts of the locals, revered by the Lille faithfuls. There is the veteran and almost afterthought Jose Fonte. Then there is Burak Yilmaz who has only ever plied his trade in Turkey. 35 and yet to yield, the red of Lille march on. In a sense, Yilmaz represents exactly what Lille stands for. Heart, soul, loyalty, finding fun in everyday chores and doing your job even if it frustrates you. It is how the everyday person lives and still smiles through.
Ligue 1 title race - the situation
That intriguing battle of contradictions. Of heart versus the noxious roll of banknotes, of money versus Moneyball. It is now only two games that separate Lille from their fourth Ligue 1 title, their first in 10 years. They are leading the title race with 79 points from 36 games, while PSG are second with 76 points from 36 games. Both teams are heading into the final two games on the back of four victories and 1 draw in the last 5 games. However, PSG's draw against Rennes in the last game has put Lille in the driver's seat.
For Lille, Yilmaz is the top scorer with 15 goals and Jonathan Bamba has the most assists with 9. That is the same number as Angel Di Maria's, who leads the assists charts for the Parisiens. PSG's top scorer, meanwhile, missed their last two games due to injury. Mbappe has 19 goals and leads the league but the race - even for the fastest - is now dependent on another runner sprinting a different lap.
Ligue 1 title race - the opposition
The last two games of Lille: versus Saint-Etienne (11th position) at home and versus Angers (12th position) away on the final day of the season. The last two games of PSG: versus Reims (13th position) at home and versus Brest (14th position) away on the final day of the season.
This will go down to the wire. 4 points - one victory, one draw for Lille - and they will be champions. Their champagne is on ice and it awaits that almighty podium pop!