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Lille spring a surprise charge

Posted: May 16, 2021
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Oh, Lille.

Since Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) took over Paris Saint-Germain back in 2011, PSG have only failed to win the Ligue 1 title twice. The first time was in 2011-12. An Olivier Giroud-powered Montpellier won the title. But, PSG were just finding their feet then. The second time was back in 2016-17. This time, a simply sensational Monaco side pipped them. That was a fantastic Monaco squad, with the likes of Danijel Subasic, Fabinho, Joao Moutinho, Radamel Falcao, Bernardo Silva, Timoue Bakayoko, Djibril Sidibe, Benjamin Mendy, Thomas Lemar, Kamil Glik and teenage senation Kylian Mbappe. Mbappe scored 15, Falcao hit 21, and they finished eight points clear at the top of the table.

But those were understandable. What can be the justification this time around? This is a PSG team spearheaded by two of the world's best footballers in Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. The spine of the team includes world class footballers such as Marco Veratti and Marquinhos. Countless other players of top quality and big price tags make up the rest of the squad. Lille, meanwhile, are mired in financial problems due to the pandemic, and are led by 37-year old Jose Fonte at the back and 35-year old Burak Yilmaz up front. Common sense suggests PSG should sweep to the title as always. But that hasn't exactly happened now, has it?


Uncertain season


For PSG, it has been a rather uncertain season. Early in the season, Thomas Tuchel publicly expressed his concerns at the lack of transfer activity, with Edinson Cavani, Thiago Silva, Thomas Meunier and Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting leaving. Tuchel wanted to keep the influential captain Thiago Silva, but PSG's contract offer was far too late and he had already agreed to join Chelsea. Young academy stars Loic Mbe Soh, Adil Aouchiche and Tanguy Nianzou also left the club.

His words brought a flurry of transfer activity to last season's Champions League runners-up. Right-back Alessandro Florenzi, midfielders Danilo Pereira and Rafinha, and striker Moise Kean arrived on loan deals. The loans of Mauro Icardi and goalkeeper Sergio Rico were converted into permanent deals. Unfortunately, in the context of how the season panned out, those early weeks of uncertainty really hurt their campaign. Injuries, players down with Covid, lack of adequate cover - all of it contributed to a stuttering start.

Post-Tuchel

Thomas Tuchel left in December after disagreements with the board. Tuchel did what no one else had managed before him. He knit together a team from a group of superstars and he guided them to the Champions League final. A superb, in-form Bayern Munich was a step too far, but it was an achievement, one that could be built upon. Even when he left, PSG's destiny was in their own hands. They reached the knockouts of the Champions League. In the league, they had time to make good of lost ground.

Instead, here they are, about to lose the league, and out of the Champions League. It was former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino who got the job. Pochettino raised a mid-table Premier League club to regular top four charges, and even two title races in 2015/16 and 2016-17. The 2018-19 Champions League final was the pinnacle for both club and manager however. Their form deteriorated last season, resulting in Pochettino's sacking and Mourinho's arrival.

Injuries have affected PSG's momentum badly. For long periods, they have been unable to field Mbappe and Neymar together. Mauro Icardi scored a fair few last season but this time around his touch seems to have deserted. The influential Veratti, too, has missed out on a chunk of games. Moise Kean was a surprise signing. He struggled at Everton, but has been a bright spot at PSG. He has taken the limited opportunities and scored important goals. PSG have stuttered their way through a league they were expected to coast through.

In the Champions League, they got past Barcelona in style, and successfully navigated Bayern Munich before being stopped by Manchester City. For Pochettino, it is another chance lost in Europe's premier competition. Thomas Tuchel, is preparing to return to the Champions League final for the second time in a row, this time with Chelsea.


Lille's recipe


Lille have a habit of losing their best players. Not too long ago, a certain Eden Hazard led Lille to the Ligue 1 title, unheralded, in 2010-11. He left soon after for Chelsea. A couple of years ago, Nicolas Pepe went to Arsenal for 72 million. Last summer, Victor Osimhen left for a similar fee to Napoli. Backup striker Remy also left. And Lille required a completely new strike force. In came highly rated youngster Jonathan David from Gent. The Canadian striker took a long time to settle however, and his form only really arrived in the second half of the season.

Fortunately, they made a very good insurance signing in Burak Yilmaz. The veteran Turkish striker has been consistent all season long, first carrying the goalscoring weight on his own, and now linking well with David as well as the likes of Ikone. Yilmaz is not alone in impressing; their Turkish trio have all impressed, with attacking midfielder Yusuf Yazici among the goals and right-back Zeki Celik a solid presence. 37-year old Jose Fonte is a warrior, marshaling the defence well.

Lille's spirit was epitomized in their recent win against Lyon. They were two down and Islam Slimani scored one and induced an own goal. But a hat-trick from Burak Yilmaz in the second half gave them all three points, and crucially kept them on track for a surprise title.

Short-lived fame

In all probability, this side will be picked apart slowly by Europe's richest sides, just like Monaco's 2016-17 side. The midfielder Boubakary Soumare has reportedly agreed a move to Leicester City. The vultures have been swirling around the talented centre-back Sven Botman. Jonathan David could easily become the latest Lille forward with a big money move after Pepe and Osimhen. Ikone has been an underrated presence, but he is a fantastic player and could be one that teams have an eye on.

The air is of inevitability. Despite the looming title win and Champions league football next season, they remain deeply in debt. It was no surprise that Christophe Galtier, who has led Lille to this position, might leave. His destination? Mid-table Nice. They are financially healthier. And reportedly have a more ambitious project. It doesn't reflect well on the league despite the competitiveness that challenges the notion of a "farmers' league".

Whatever happens next, this was an enjoyable season. Lille have had a roller coaster ride, but they deserve to be here. Soon, they might have the trophy in their hands. No one can dispute they haven't earned that.