Finally in the 53rd minute it happened, Gervinho put the ball past Teddy Richert in the Sochaux goal and Lille had the breakthrough. The one nil victory over Francis Gillot’s men gave Lille a six point lead over Marseille, barring a complete disaster Lille should become this year’s Ligue 1 champions.
It hasn’t all been sunshine and lollipops. In July 2007 my journey with Lille was only one year old but the team I had been captivated with was gone. Peter Odemwingie, Kader Keith, Mathieu Bodmer, Mathieu Chalme and others were all sold on. Michel Seydoux raked in around €40-€50m on players sales – in return we got Pierre-Alain Frau, Marko Maric and Luis Yanes…a journeyman and two unknowns.
The likes of Jean Makoun, Stephane Lichsteiner, Kevin Mirallas and even coach Claude Puel all followed suit. In 2007 Lille finished 10th in Ligue 1 quite a change from the 2rd and 3rd place finishes that had excited and delighted me as a new fan. However I’d fallen for Les Dogues and I wasn’t about to say goodbye to her after a few dark days.
Now after three years in charge Rudi Garcia has guided Lille to the brink of their first league title since 1954. A fantastic achievement for a small team from northern France. Even at the start of the season when the so-called experts were picking Lille to have a fantastic campaign as a fan that had watched them in previous seasons it was easier to air on the side of caution rather than get swept up in the hype.
Garcia had done a fantastic job building up the squad. The signings of Gervinho, Michael Landreau and Florent Balmont were great moves. Youngsters coming through in the guise of Adil Rami, Aurelien Chedjou and of course Eden Hazard gave the team a youthful excitement. But many questions still hung over this side.
The defence looked very make-shift. Franck Beria a right back playing on the left. Mathieu Debuchy a midfielder playing at right-back. Chedjou was himself a midfielder – surely this was not a team that could win or even challenge for the title.
Moussa Sow signed on a free transfer from Rennes in the summer had scored 18 league goals in his career before this season. 21 goals later and he has made a bit of a name for himself. The success cannot be pin pointed to any one trait or individual. The front three are a joy to watch, they don’t have set positions to pinpoint where they play it is so free-flowing, the movement at times can put you into a trance.
In the centre of the park the midfield trio of Yohan Cabaye, Rio Mavuba and Florent Balmont complement each other beautifully. Mavuba is happy to sit in front of the defence, breaking up the play with anticipation rather than being a destroyer – everything goes through Rio. Balmont brings a drive and energy to the team. The man is a straight up warrior very unheralded in the success of this team and Cabaye brings the poise, great passing, box to box – the goals have dried up this year but he still oozes class.
As much as it is a team effort of course the name of Eden Hazard stands out, he didn’t start the season very well but around October/November he really picked up his game. He may not score the goals or provide the assists but his drive and determination twinned with his fantastic technique and skill is a catalyst for every brilliant move this team puts together. He has an almost telepathic understanding with Gervinho, as a duo when they work together it’s impossible to stop.
Hopefully when the title is won preparations can begin for the Champions League next season with most of this team intact. Inevitably this team will disband eventually. Hazard will be gone within the next 12 months, Gervinho probably this summer. If Moussa Sow can repeat this years efforts the big clubs will circle around him. Adil Rami has already signed for Valencia. Just like the team spearheaded by Peter Odemwingie this one won’t last forever.
Lille however will. A new stadium will open in time for the 2012/13 season, with a capacity to have 50,000 fans cheering on the next set of stars. I have no doubt that there will be dark times again, maybe sooner rather than later but this is a club with it’s head screwed on right. No ideas of grandour outside it’s means. The men in charge know what they’re doing.
I just hope it’s not another 56 years before they win another trophy!
By Andrew Gibney.