Lille Enjoy French Title Win But Maintaining Success May Be Impossible
In the final analysis it is tempting to put the outcome of the French title race down to Paris Saint-Germain’s shortcomings, but nothing should be taken away from Lille’s remarkable achievement in winning Ligue 1 for the first time in a decade.
PSG, despite boasting the two most expensive signings ever in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, did suffer eight defeats, their most in a single campaign since 2010-11.
Yet somebody still needed to take advantage of the Qatar-owned club’s slip-ups and Lille did that emphatically. They also took four points off PSG, including beating them in Paris.
“We have only lost three games. Maybe PSG have not been as good but Lille have been great,” said winger Jonathan Bamba.
Lille’s success is partly down to circumstance, and partly down to two inspirational figures.
The coach, Christophe Galtier, took over a sinking ship from Marcelo Bielsa midway through the 2017-18 season.
Lille just avoided relegation and then finished second to PSG in his first full season. They were fourth when last season was ended early because of the coronavirus pandemic, and now they are champions.
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Galtier’s success is all the more remarkable given that the club has regularly sold its best players.
In 2018 midfielder Yves Bissouma was sold to Brighton. In 2019 they sold star forward Nicolas Pepe to Arsenal for 80 million euros ($97m), Rafael Leao to AC Milan and midfielder Thiago Mendes to Lyon.
Last year top scorer Victor Osimhen left for Napoli for 70 million euros, while Brazilian centre-back Gabriel joined Arsenal for 30 million.
Yet Galtier has brilliantly incorporated replacements and hugely enhanced a reputation that was already glowing following his record in eight years at Saint-Etienne.
But the one-time Portsmouth assistant manager’s success would not have been possible without Luis Campos, the Portuguese super-scout who built the Monaco team that denied PSG the title in 2017.
He was also the genius behind the scenes at Lille, the man who made it possible for them to sell Pepe and Mendes in 2019 and replace them with Osimhen and Renato Sanches.
Last year he replaced Gabriel with young Dutch defender Sven Botman while replacing Osimhen with Canadian striker Jonathan David and signing veteran Turkish striker Burak Yilmaz.
‘King Burak’ has been an absolute superstar.
Fittingly, both men were on target in Sunday’s title-clinching 2-1 win at Angers.
Campos, though, left Monaco a year before their title triumph and his relationship with Lille ended midway through this season too.
After 2017, that Monaco team was gradually broken up. When the title celebrations among Lille supporters die down, they might worry for the future too.
Their current team was only not pillaged even more last summer because of the financial impact on Europe’s leading clubs of the pandemic.
This time Lille will lose more players, goalkeeper Mike Maignan and midfielder Boubakary Soumare probably among them, but Campos will not be there to sign replacements.
New owners, new direction?
Galtier’s achievements are even more remarkable given Lille went through considerable off-field turmoil in the winter.
It was not just Campos who left but also the club’s owner, Luxembourgish-Spanish businessman Gerard Lopez, who under financial pressure sold Lille in December to a subsidiary of the Merlyn Partners investment fund.
“What has allowed Lille to be in the spotlight today is simple,” Galtier told sports daily L’Equipe in November.
“The president found funds to invest in players spotted by a man of incredible competence.”
Now they have both gone and Galtier may not be there next season either. He has a year left on his contract but may feel he can take Lille no further. He has been linked with French rivals Lyon and Nice.
Lille now have a new president in ex-PSG sporting director Olivier Letang, but French football is still reeling from the collapse of a record domestic broadcast deal with Mediapro late last year.
In any case Lille’s budget is smaller than that of Lyon, Marseille and Monaco as well as PSG.
The Parisians will almost certainly be back next year but Lille, champions for the fourth time in their history, will be able to say the success was fun while it lasted.