Garcia: 'We're building something great'
Lille coach Rudi Garcia spoke exclusively to Ligue1.com about the title race, his side's fighting spirit, the Champions League and the new state-of-the-art Grand Stade de Lille.
Garcia must be loving this end of season. A few weeks ago a top-two finish appeared a remote possibility but then the champions beat PSG to change the picture. Garcia's men are still third, a position they've held for the bulk of the season, but are now only two points behind PSG and a further three back from leaders Montpellier. Last season's double winners have shown real pride and class in their efforts to defend their title.
'Focus on our own performances'
"Two months ago, everybody said we wouldn't even finish in the top five," said Garcia, whose men have claimed seven wins in their last eight matches to get right back in the mix at the top of the table. "From that moment on, we said to ourselves that we would no longer look at the table and instead would focus on our own performances, try to play as well as possible and try to position ourselves for the final sprint."
A tactic that has obviously paid dividends, thanks to the determination, commitment and fighting spirit of his players, Garcia says: "The squad has stood up to be counted. There's a strong collective will that has become apparent in recent weeks. If we keep this team spirit going then we can allow ourselves all sorts of hopes. The end of season is going to be very exciting and last season's double gave my players a lot of confidence."
However, despite the morale boost of last season's league and Coupe de France double, the off-season saw Lille part with key players, including Côte d'Ivoire forward Gervinho to Arsenal, France defender Adil Rami to Valencia and his Les Bleus teammate Yohan Cabaye to Newcastle.
Fitting right in
"We're backing that performance up with a different squad of players. About 50% of the team changed for this season. At least four of last season's first eleven are no longer around compared to last season," Garcia said of the squad changes that saw Dimitri Payet, Benoît Pedretti and Marko Basa join the club.
"We didn't complain, we kept looking forward, we welcomed aboard the newcomers and asked them to show us their quality, which is what they've been doing. They've adapted well to the Lille philosophy of play. For now, and this is something pleasing, it's been the quality of play and the team spirit that have allowed us to perform. We're third and that place suits us fine, although of course we want to keep it and maybe improve on it."
Eyes on Champions League prize
Having been on the fringes of what has been seen as a two-horse title race for most of 2012, Garcia explained that his side are perfectly placed to go about securing a top-three finish without the pressure that the top two sides have experienced.
"We've got no reason to be calculating, nothing to defend," he claimed. "We could finish second and the desire's there to try to do it. It's exciting to be able to say we're in the race for the Champions League places. That's what motivates everybody here. Le Grand Stade is being built and that reminds us every day that we want to be playing in the most beautiful of all the competitions. To do that we need to finish off the season as well as possible."
Indeed, Lille have big plans for the future and current indicators suggest that there are indeed bigger things in store for the northern club.
"We've played nearly all our matches in front of sell-out crowds. That proves there's potential for our supporter base to grow in Lille and in the northern region. The gauge of the 50,000 capacity new stadium is great. We've already sold more than 21,000 season tickets," he explained. "The season's not over and the Grand Stade's not finished either, but we'll have it at the start of August for the start of the new season. That's positive and it proves we're really building something great here and that president Michel Seydoux is continuing to work so that Lille becomes a big French club."
But for now, and in a style perfectly suiting the club's philosophy of gradual, sustainable growth, Garcia says that Lille are simply focused on the task at hand as the season draws to a dramatic close.
"The objective for the end of the season has not changed and the ambition is still to finish in the top three," he declared ahead of Monday night's clash at home to Caen, where a win will see Les Dogues keep the pressure on PSG for second place. "We'll do everything we can to achieve that."