This season has not always been plain sailing for Christophe Galtier and Lille, but they remain in a strong position to secure UEFA Champions League qualification once again.
There were always going to be teething problems for LOSC after they sold their best player, Nicolas Pépé, to Arsenal last summer. Not to mention their midfield lynchpin, Thiago Mendes, left-back Youssouf Koné and their third-highest league goal-scorer, Rafael Leão. Still, new faces were brought in and fans would have been hoping for better in Europe than a miserly one point from six Champions League group games, even in a remarkably tough section including Valencia, Chelsea and Ajax.
As well as extending their run without a win in European competition to a pretty astonishing, and damning, 17 games, Lille were also dumped out of the Coupe de France in the last 16 by fourth-tier outfit Epinal. Then there was the fact that they won just one of their first 10 away outings this season, taking five points from a possible 30 on the road. Relegation form, essentially.
And yet here we are, almost two-thirds of the way through the campaign, with Les Dogues sitting fourth in the table coming into the weekend ahead of Sunday night’s clash with Olympique de Marseille, only one point behind Stade Rennais FC in third. So can Lille go on from here to claim a podium finish? For all their difficulties this season, that would be some achievement - the last time Lille finished in the top three in successive seasons was when they followed up their double-winning campaign in 2011 by coming in third in 2012 with a team containing both Eden Hazard and Dimitri Payet. And Joe Cole.
The form book
The first thing to consider is current form. After three straight defeats straddling the winter break, Lille have bounced back since the beginning of February with three wins from three games, a run that has allowed them to close back to within a single point of Rennes, a club not used to fighting for Champions League qualification. Another victory on Sunday against a Marseille side unbeaten in the league since October would be a huge statement, and would allow Galtier’s team to move to within six points of OM, hardly an insurmountable gap.
Throughout their difficulties, Lille have remained very strong at home. Their 2-0 defeat by a Neymar-inspired Paris Saint-Germain in late January is their only league loss in 16 matches at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy since March last year. Home advantage could be crucial in upcoming games against rivals for European qualification - after Marseille, Olympique Lyonnais, AS Monaco and OGC Nice all still have to visit the far north between now and the end of the season.
Of course the flip side has been their away form, which has included defeats in Amiens and in Toulouse. After a 1-0 loss in Dijon last month, Galtier was fuming.
“We can’t afford to be beaten in terms of desire if we want to get back into Europe,” he said. “Losing in Paris and Marseille is hard, ok, but we are losing to teams who are simply showing more hunger than us. Quite a lot of our players are in their comfort zone, as if it doesn’t matter if we lose away because we have another game to come at home. But winning all our home games will not be enough for us to reach our objective.”
That public dressing down appears to have worked, with Lille winning their last two games on the road, a 2-1 victory at RC Strasbourg Alsace being followed by a 2-0 success at Angers SCO last weekend. And they have already played away to the three teams above them, while also having gone to the likes of Strasbourg, Nice and Monaco.
Then there are the players. With Mike Maignan in goal, and the partnership of the excellent young Brazilian Gabriel and the veteran José Fonte in front of him, Lille’s defence is equipped for the challenge. Boubakary Soumaré and Benjamin André make for one of the best midfield pairings in France, and the influence of Portuguese international Renato Sanches is steadily growing. Will he finally fulfil his undoubted potential in Lille after three years of stunted growth at Bayern Munich?
Pressure on Osimhen
The biggest question is whether they can score the goals. Coming into the weekend, of all the teams in the top 11, only Stade de Reims (22) had scored fewer goals than Lille’s tally of 29. The finger is rightly pointed at Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikoné, who have netted just four times between them, and two of those goals were penalties. Timothy Weah has never been fit, and Victor Osimhen has carried all the responsibility when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net.
Of course Osimhen has handled the pressure magnificently, scoring 12 times altogether, including one of the goals at Angers last weekend. Eight of his goals have opened the scoring in games, and for good measure he has also set up three more goals. No wonder Lille fans were worried sick at the sight of the Nigerian coming off on a stretcher at the Stade Raymond-Kopa. While that thigh injury has turned out to be nothing serious, LOSC would be in big trouble without Osimhen, even if bringing Argentine international Nicolás Gaitán back to Europe late in the January window was a gamble that could still pay dividends.
It is a squad that has been superbly managed by Christophe Galtier, the man named coach of the last decade by France Football magazine. While the likes of Monaco and Lyon have both attempted to kick-start their campaigns by changing the man in the dugout, Galtier may be Lille’s greatest asset. However, the 53-year-old has tried to play down talk of a top-three finish.
“I don’t want to talk about that because there are a lot of matches remaining. It is still too soon, the league is very tight,” he said after the Angers success made it three wins in a week. “We are a multifaceted team. Of course it is nice to have such a week but it is really too soon to say we will be competing for a top-three place.”
Time will tell.