For RC Lens, a successful first season back in Ligue 1 means European qualification is within reach. Ligue1.com explains why supporters of Les Sang et Or should be optimistic about their chances of a return to continental competition for the first time since 2007.
They have momentum
With six games remaining Lens are in fine form and in pole position to clinch a European berth. After Round 32 Franck Haise’s team sat in fifth place, three points clear of Olympique de Marseille in sixth and four ahead of Stade Rennais FC in seventh. As it stands, finishing fifth will mean a place in the play-off round of the inaugural UEFA Europa Conference League. However, if one of Paris Saint-Germain, AS Monaco or Olympique Lyonnais were to finish in the top four and also win the Coupe de France, then fifth would be a Europa League spot and sixth would be enough to go into the Europa Conference League.
Lens are therefore in a strong position. They have been on a superb run, with last weekend’s 4-1 home win over FC Lorient extending their unbeaten run to 11 games. Next they go to Stade Brestois 29 and they will be hoping their current momentum can sustain their European push despite a run-in featuring a trip to PSG and home games against LOSC as well as Monaco.
Marseille and Rennes, the two teams immediately below Lens in the table, started this season in the Champions League after finishing the last campaign on the podium. Qualifying for Europe again was the very least these sides were aiming for this time, and the pressure is on them to get there. The same could be said for OGC Nice, who have possibly already given themselves too much to do to achieve their goal of qualifying for Europe again.
In contrast Lens can play freely with the pressure off. This is their first season back in the elite after five years away. They have been relegated in three of their last four Ligue 1 campaigns. Really this season was supposed to be all about consolidation, especially as the pandemic has denied them the advantage of playing in front of packed crowds at their Stade Bollaert-Delelis, which boasts one of the best atmospheres in the French game. They have already over-achieved.
Jonathan Clauss is a sensation
The player ratings in France’s leading sports daily, L’Equipe, are notoriously tough but they are also followed religiously by fans and the players themselves. It is therefore significant that standing at the top of the ratings after 32 matches is Jonathan Clauss, the flying Lens wing-back.
The 28-year-old had never played top-flight football before signing for Les Sang et Or in May last year from Arminia Bielefeld, who he had just helped win promotion to the German Bundesliga. Previously with Avranches in the third tier and then Quevilly-Rouen in Ligue 2, he has been a superstar for Lens on the right flank. In their last 10 league games he has scored three goals and set up five more. His L’Equipe rating is 6.09 out of 10, putting him just ahead of Lille skipper José Fonte and Lyon midfielder Lucas Paqueta.
Kakuta - a gamble that has paid off
When Chelsea whisked Gaël Kakuta away from the Lens youth academy as a 16-year-old in 2007, they thought they had acquired a future French superstar. It never worked out that way for the gifted attacking midfielder, who hardly played for the London club and ended up playing for 10 different clubs over the next decade, including a stint in China.
However he did enough in a struggling Amiens SC side who were relegated from Ligue 1 last season to convince Lens to bring him back home 13 years later in a €5 million transfer. Kakuta, still just 29, has been a sensation. He has scored 10 goals, including six penalties, and set up five more. Kakuta has hardly missed a game in a role as a number 10 behind two strikers.
“He wanted to come here and be a part of our project, and it has worked out,” coach Haise recently told L’Equipe. “He has shown great commitment to the cause, both when he has been in great form and when he has been having a bit less impact on the team.”
They might be able to keep Medina!
Facundo Medina is another player who has impressed since signing for the northerners in the last close season. The 21-year-old Argentine centre-back was plucked from Talleres de Cordoba in his homeland on a four-year deal for a reported €3.5 million. That already looks like a bargain as Medina’s form has led to him being linked with some of Europe’s biggest outfits, from Real Madrid to Manchester United and Inter Milan.
The last Lens team to qualify for Europe featured its own South American defensive star in Vitorino Hilton. Medina, who made his Argentina debut in a World Cup qualifier against Bolivia in October, has indicated that he would be in no rush to leave Lens if they managed to qualify for Europe.
“If we qualify I would prefer to stay because we have a great group of players and I am enjoying myself,” he told Spanish newspaper As.