Just 12 months after avoiding getting relegated to the Domino’s Ligue 2, LOSC Lille find themselves second only to Paris Saint-Germain at the happier end of the Ligue 1 table and edging towards the prize of UEFA Champions League qualification.
It is the sort of fairytale only Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and football can write: a once-great club fallen spectacularly from grace, reviving in the dying embers to survive a season, and then rising just as spectacularly against all the odds.
Hopes of bringing European football back to the northern French club were the leitmotif of Gerard Lopez’s takeover, and his appointment of Marcelo Bielsa in the summer 2017 was an unequivocal statement of intent - ‘We want Lille back in the big time’.
Fresh memories of Bielsa’s swashbuckling strategy put into such dazzling effect at Olympique de Marseille had the Lille fans salivating, and very few objections were raised when the enigmatic Argentine swept through his squad with a particularly unforgiving broom.
Experienced members of the squad, including 2010-11 double winners such as Rio Mavuba, were banished from the first-team squad and eventually moved on, while a clutch of young players were brought in.
Some of those youngsters, and notably top scorer Nicolas Pépé, are the main reason for the team’s success this term, but last season - following the false dawn of a 3-0 win over Nantes in the opening game of the campaign - a winless run of 13 matches set the tone for a season of struggle and cost Bielsa his job.
The Real Deal
Cue Christophe Galtier. A well-known figure in Ligue 1 circles following his consistent success for nearly a decade at Saint-Etienne.
The former Lille defender now had to add another string to his bow: that of a man who can mastermind a successful relegation scrap.
Galtier completed what had seemed to be that mission impossible late in the 2017-18 season, but knew he had to reinforce his squad, and mostly by putting back into it what Bielsa had so ruthlessly rooted out: experience.
"“Marcelo Bielsa preferred to bring in youth and let go all the experienced players, and what they asked of me was exactly that: to be the leader, bring some calmness and experience into the team. They asked me to be professional, be myself and give the young players an example to follow.”" - Jose Fonte, Portugal international
He has done that, providing the platform Galtier wanted at the back to allow the young talents to express themselves freely further up the pitch, and they have done that thrillingly.
Jonathan Bamba, who worked with Galtier at AS Saint-Étienne, Jonathan Ikoné, a summer signing from PSG, and Portuguese prodigy Rafael Leao have all provided fireworks, while Pépé - a Bielsa signing - has been the standout performer.
"“His pace is blistering. He can play anywhere he wants, it’s as simple as that. If he goes to Madrid, Barcelona, Man United, Man City, he can do that and will do a good job.”" - Jose Fonte, Portugal international
Lille, who are getting back on an even keel financially under Lopez, will be hoping Pépé can prove Fonte right against - rather than with - Europe's finest next season.
Fonte: “We’re Focused”
"The pressure is not on us, we want to finish second, we want to go directly to the Champions League, that’s why we work every day,” explained Fonte, whose side are four points clear of Lyon with nine games left.
“I’ll give 120 per cent. Lyon have some work to do to catch up. We're focused, we're working very hard to try and maintain second place.”
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