Pepe stars again as Lille secure second at Caen
Nicolas Pepe's 13th goal of the Ligue 1 Conforama season proved unlucky for SM Caen as LOSC Lille strengthened their grip on second place with a 3-1 win in Normandy on Friday.
SM Caen 1-3 LOSC Lille
Their surprise defeat to Toulouse FC just before Christmas and only two wins in their last eight league games meant Christophe Galtier's men were not sitting quite as comfortably as they might have hoped during the festive period with third-placed Olympique Lyonnais just two points back and with a game in hand.
But last weekend's Coupe de France victory over FC Sochaux-Montbéliard had got 2019 off on a positive note, and the visitors wasted little time in settling their nerves at the Stade Michel d'Ornano.
The hosts had made an energetic, rugged start with Casimir Ninga in particular posing a threat, but Lille have a forward cut from an even finer cloth in Pepe. The admirers of the Ivory Coast international will not have been surprised by his cool-headed finish to beat Brice Samba after Thiago Mendes had spied his intelligent forward burst (8').
Ninga found himself in a similar position shortly afterwards, but the ex-Montpellier Hérault SC man merely gave Lille goalkeeper Mike Maignan the opportunity to showcase his razor-edged reflexes (14').
Maignan then moved smartly to push out a Fayçal Fajr free-kick (16') as Caen — with just one win in their last 11 matches, ironically against Toulouse just before they beat Lille — sought to level.
Instead, soon they were further behind. Zeki Celik and Pepe teamed up on the right with the latter playing Rafael Leao in behind Paul Baysse before the young Portuguese striker sidefooted home his fourth of the campaign (20').
Samba's faint touch denied Pepe what would have been a game-ending third (22') before Lille allowed Caen to enjoy possession, but reap no benefit from it.
Only another Samba stop prevented Leao finding the net soon after the restart (55') and Pepe fizzed an effort wide as Galtier's men, who had already extended their scoring streak to six successive games for the first time this season, sought to ensure the scoreline reflected the gulf in class (68').
They struggled to do that, and Galtier will be disappointed the game ended on a low: Celik sent off for a foul on Ninga that, but for VAR, would have given the hosts a chance to reduce their deficit from the spot (84'). They eventually did through Ninga (90+5'), but not before substitute Luiz Araujo had given Lille margin for error (90+3').
THE PLAYER: Nicolas Pepe
His strike takes his tally to 13 this season, as many as he scored in the whole of the 2017/18 campaign. The Lille forward also had a hand in his team's second and third, meaning he has contributed to at least one goal in 13 of his 20 top-flight appearances this term. There is just one word for that: impressive!
THE STAT: 14
Lille have won 14 of their last 15 league games against Caen.