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.
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.
Kylian Mbappe warned he is “only just getting started” after scoring his 100th goal in France’s top flight as Paris Saint-Germain swept aside title rivals Lyon 4-2 on Sunday to move to the top of Ligue 1 following a shock defeat for previous leaders Lille earlier.
Mbappe netted twice at the Groupama Stadium with Danilo Pereira and Angel Di Maria also on target before Islam Slimani and Maxwel Cornet pulled goals back for the home side.
The result allowed Mauricio Pochettino’s team to move into first place on goal difference from Lille, who were beaten 2-1 at home by struggling Nimes in a huge blow to their own title hopes.
Lyon would have gone top themselves with a victory but instead they remain three points off the lead in third place, while Monaco are another point back in fourth after winning 4-0 at Saint-Etienne on Friday.
Mbappe is Ligue 1’s leading scorer with 20 goals this season and has reached a century of goals in France’s top flight in 142 appearances at the age of just 22.
“I knew I was just two goals away. It’s a new step in my career, another step towards history. These are things that stay with you,” Mbappe told Canal Plus.
“I am only just getting started. I still have a lot of years in front of me to perfect and improve my game so I think it can only get better.”
It was a perfect night for PSG, as the reigning champions bounced back from a surprise 2-1 home loss to relegation-threatened Nantes last week and claimed a win against a direct rival in the title race for the first time this season.
They also saw Neymar return after a month and a half, and nine games, out injured. The world’s most expensive player came on as a substitute, replacing Mbappe midway through the second half.
Mbappe was close to his electrifying best and the World Cup winner opened the scoring 15 minutes in, following up to find the net after Marco Verratti’s shot was parried by Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.
Marquinhos then nodded down a Presnel Kimpembe cross for Pereira to slam in and make it 2-0 just after the half-hour mark, and any hopes Lyon had of a comeback were blown away at the start of the second half.
First Di Maria whipped in a free-kick from wide on the right that evaded everyone on its way into the net, and then Verratti released Mbappe to break clear and finish for his second of the game on 52 minutes.
PSG took their foot off the pedal after that and allowed Lyon back into the game with Algerian striker Slimani firing in from outside the box just past the hour mark before Cornet made it 4-2 inside the final 10 minutes.
“We played well, we won, we have taken back first place and now we’ll try not to give it up,” Mbappe added.
– ‘No excuse’ for Lille – Pochettino’s side are next in action after the international break on April 3 when they entertain Lille in another top-of-the-table encounter.
Lille had been top at the start of the day but their hopes of a first title in a decade suffered a major blow against Nimes.
Goals from Senegalese striker Moussa Kone and captain Renaud Ripart, either side of Xeka’s equaliser for Lille, gave Nimes a victory which lifted them out of the automatic relegation places.
Lille have now won just twice in league games and been eliminated from both the Europa League and French Cup in recent weeks.
“We didn’t perform well. There is no excuse, but there are eight matches left until the end of the season and the battle goes on,” Lille captain Jose Fonte told Canal Plus.
“Our rule number one is to defend well, not concede goals, and then we will get chances in every game, but we didn’t do that and when you don’t defend together as a team it is always difficult.”
Nimes move up into the relegation play-off position while Nantes, held 1-1 by Lorient, slip to 19th.
Neymar is “expected” to make his return from an ankle injury next month, Paris Saint-Germain announced on Saturday.
PSG coach Thomas Tuchel had said he was hoping Neymar might be fit to play a part in Sunday’s clash with Ligue 1 leaders Lille, but the Parisians said in a statement the Brazil attacker would be out until the New Year.
“There is some bruising to the bone and he continues to undergo treatment at the training ground,” the French champions said in a statement.
“He is expected to make his return in January.”
That would see the world’s most expensive player return comfortably in time for PSG’s Champions League last-16 first leg against Barcelona on February 16.
Neymar, who has scored nine goals this season, suffered a sprained ankle after a challenge from Lyon midfielder Thiago Mendes earlier this month.
Lille midfielders Renato Sanches, Jonathan Ikone and Jonathan Bamba have tested positive for COVID-19, coach Christophe Galtier said on Saturday, calling for more firmness in enforcing social distancing.
All three tested positive last Monday, Galtier said after a 2-1 friendly win at Belgian first-division club Mouscron.
He said Sanches, a Euro 2016 winner, had returned to Portugal during a week off and there shown symptoms and tested positive.
“Renato is still in Portugal and he cannot travel yet because he has to pass two negative tests,” Galtier said.
He said Ikone, a French international, and Bamba, a France under-21 player, had been confined to their homes but “should come back to training on Monday”.
Galtier urged the French to follow the rules on social distancing.
“I’ve had eight days off and I’ve seen how we behave,” he said.
“Let’s continue like this and we’ll all be reconfined and it’ll be a mess. It’s up to the state to be firm.
“If we continue like this, we won’t be able to avoid a second wave.”
Neymar dedicated his second goal at Lille to basketball legend Kobe Bryant, whose death on Sunday in a helicopter crash shocked the world.
The Brazilian slotted home the 52nd-minute penalty that put PSG two goals up in the French Ligue 1 clash and went over to the television cameras by the side of the Stade Pierre Mauro pitch to make the number 24 with his fingers in honour of Bryant’s shirt number.
Bryant, who had been nominated for the NBA Hall of Fame in December, was confirmed dead at 41 years old on Sunday after a helicopter crashed and burst into flames in foggy conditions in suburban Los Angeles, leaving five people dead.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials said there were no survivors from the morning crash on a rugged hillside in Calabasas, west of LA.
In an email to AFP, Mayor of Calabasas Alicia Weintraub confirmed Bryant was among the victims.
Lyon beat Lille on penalties after a dramatic 2-2 draw at the Groupama Stadium on Tuesday to reach their sixth French League Cup final, setting up a possible clash with record eight-time winners Paris Saint-Germain.
Renato Sanches dragged what proved to be the last penalty of the shootout wide to send Lyon through.
This is the final season of the League Cup after the French league voted to suspend the competition from next term to ease fixture congestion.
Lille have never won the tournament, losing once in the final in 2016.
Lyon will bid to lift the trophy for the second time when they take on the winner of Wednesday’s second semi-final between Reims and PSG on April 4 at the Stade de France.
Portugal midfielder Sanches gave visitors Lille a 13th-minute lead with a low left-footed strike from outside the area to score his second goal for the club since joining from Bayern last August.
But the hosts were gifted a way back into the game four minutes later when centre-back Gabriel handled inside the area.
Moussa Dembele, who missed a penalty in the 4-3 French Cup win at Nantes on Saturday, drilled the spot-kick into the top corner to grab his sixth goal in five games.
Neither side created many chances either side of half-time, but Houssem Aouar appeared to have fired Lyon into the final with a fine long-range strike with five minutes remaining.
There was another twist in the tale, though, as, despite a lengthy delay for a VAR review, Lille were awarded an injury-time penalty for what appeared to be an excellent tackle by former Manchester United full-back Rafael on Jonathan Bamba.
Loic Remy, on as a 78th-minute substitute, stepped up with a cool ‘Panenka’ finish down the middle of the goal to force more spot-kicks.
But Ciprian Tatarusanu, playing in place of usual Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, saved Bamba’s opening penalty before Sanches’ miss sealed Lille’s fate.
Chelsea booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions League as first-half goals from Tammy Abraham and Cesar Azpilicueta sealed a 2-1 win over a much-changed Lille at Stamford Bridge.
Victory for Valencia over Ajax in the other game in Group H means Frank Lampard’s men go through behind the Spaniards with last season’s semi-finalists relegated to the Europa League.
Chelsea knew victory would take them into the knockout stages no matter what the outcome was in Amsterdam and did their job early on against a Lille side with just one point to show for their return to the Champions League for the first time in seven years.
Simple finishes from Abraham and Azpilicueta were just reward for a dominant first-half display, but Chelsea were forced to hold on in the final stages after Loic Remy halved Lille’s deficit against his old club 12 minutes from time.
The visitors were already sure to finish bottom of the group and coach Christophe Galtier showed his priority is trying to secure a return to the Champions League next season by finishing in the top three of Ligue 1 as he made seven changes to the side that beat Brest on Friday.
Chelsea had won just one of their previous five games after a great start to life under Lampard and the Blues boss responded by adding a little more experience to what has been a very young side so far this season.
Antonio Rudiger returned from injury to make just his second start of the campaign at centre-back, while Jorginho was restored in midfield to the side that lost 3-1 to Everton on Saturday.
Up front, Abraham was again flanked by Christian Pulisic and Willian, and all three combined to open the scoring on 19 minutes.
Pulisic unselfishly played in Willian on the right instead of opting to go for goal himself and the Brazilian’s driven cross was tapped in by Abraham for his 13th goal of the season.
Lille have been the whipping boys in a three-way shootout for two places in the last 16 and showed why 10 minutes before half-time when Azpilicueta was left completely unmarked to head home Emerson’s corner from close range.
Mike Maignan in the Lille goal kept his side in the game with a fine double save from Pulisic and Willian at the start of the second half.
However, Chelsea took their foot off the gas as Lampard replaced Pulisic and Abraham ahead of a busy festive period in the Premier League.
And the hosts had to suffer a nervy final dozen minutes when Remy fired in off the underside of the bar.
Remy was a peripheral figure during three seasons at Chelsea between 2014 and 2017, but nearly came back to haunt his old employers only to fire weakly into the arms of Kepa Arrizabalaga in stoppage time.
Instead, Chelsea saw the game out to mark another impressive milestone in Lampard’s first season in charge.
Willian’s brilliant late strike gave Chelsea a precious 2-1 win away to Lille on Wednesday that they will hope kickstarts their Champions League campaign, but it was the young stars in Frank Lampard’s side who stole the show again.
The Brazilian volleyed home in the 78th minute to decide the game under the roof at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy on what was his 300th appearance for the club.
Tammy Abraham had earlier put Chelsea in front on his 22nd birthday with his eighth goal already this season, only for Victor Osimhen to equalise for Lille.
Chelsea are now off the mark in Group H after losing at home to Valencia a fortnight ago, although it is Ajax who continue to top the section with a maximum six points.
“Overall it was a good game. It’s never an easy place to play. Give it to the team, what a fantastic performance,” Abraham told BT Sport.
Lampard’s team face Ajax next and will do so with renewed belief after this victory.
“It is such a tough place — the roof was on, the crowd were up for it, the speed in their team and on the counter-attack especially was very evident, so we had to be ready for it and I thought our performance was really good,” said Lampard.
It was a game decided by one of the most experienced players on the pitch but which was bristling with exciting young talent as these clubs adjust to seeing their standout players — Eden Hazard on one side, Nicolas Pepe on the other — depart in the close season.
Lampard fielded two 24-year-olds as well as four more players aged 22 or under in his line-up here, as teenager Reece James started as a right wing-back in a 3-4-1-2 system.
James only made his top-team debut for the club a week ago in a League Cup tie against fourth-tier Grimsby Town. His second-half replacement, Callum Hudson-Odoi, set up the winner.
“This isn’t a game for niceties, we have to go and win these matches and improve all the time and there were loads of signs of team improvement tonight, and individuals,” Lampard added.
“The young players are responding and they have to keep doing it because the Champions League level is something else.”
Much has been made of Lampard’s promotion of youth this season in response to Chelsea’s transfer ban, although their team here also featured N’Golo Kante, with the France midfielder returning from his latest spell out.
Indeed, the average age of Chelsea’s team at kick-off was actually a year older than that of Lille.
Hudson-Odoi helps change game
Chelsea took a 22nd-minute lead when Fikayo Tomori’s ball into the box was not dealt with by the home defence, and Abraham — capped by England but eligible for Nigeria through his father — controlled and fire home.
Lille actually looked the better side going forward for long spells and Luiz Araujo was denied by a good Kepa Arrizabalaga save just after the half-hour.
Moments later they were level, Jonathan Bamba sending in a corner from the left for Osimhen, the gangly 20-year-old Nigerian striker signed in the summer, to head in his seventh of the campaign.
Jorginho struck the outside of the post with a first-time strike from range just before half-time, while Kepa tipped a Benjamin Andre header around the post early in the second half.
However, the introduction of Hudson-Odoi, the youngest of the lot at just 18, for James midway through the second half, and subsequent change of formation, breathed new life into the visitors.
Mason Mount was denied by Mike Maignan soon after, and just 12 minutes remained when winger Hudson-Odoi crossed from the left all the way to the back post where Willian connected with a volley that bounced down into the ground, over the goalkeeper’s head and in.
There was no way back for Lille, who have now failed to win any of their last 13 matches in Europe.
“They are used to playing matches like these every weekend, in Europe every season, and we saw the difference that exists between us,” said Lille coach Christophe Galtier.
Nigerian striker Victor Osimhen scored as Lille moved into third in the Ligue 1 table with a 2-0 victory over Strasbourg on Wednesday, while Lyon were held by Brest.
Last season’s runners-up Lille have now won all four of their home league games this term and sit two points adrift of leaders Paris Saint-Germain ahead of the champions’ match with Reims.
Angers remain a surprise second, behind PSG on goal difference, after Rachid Alioui’s late double grabbed Stephane Moulin’s side a 2-0 win at Toulouse.
The 20-year-old Osimhen put Christophe Galtier’s Lille into a 43rd-minute lead at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy by lashing home after some slack Strasbourg defending to net his sixth goal in seven games this season.
The three points were secured 19 minutes into the second half as Osimhen turned provider for former Chelsea and Marseille forward Loic Remy to slide in his first goal of the campaign.
Elsewhere, Lyon saw their winless streak extended to six matches in all competitions with a 2-2 draw at promoted Brest.
Moussa Dembele moved joint-top of the Ligue 1 goalscoring charts on six strikes with Osimhen by giving Lyon a 28th-minute advantage, but Yoann Court equalised for Brest less than 60 seconds later.
Maxwel Cornet appeared to have eased some of the pressure on Lyon coach Sylvinho by netting in the 69th minute, but Court completed his double to snatch Brest a point with five minutes remaining.
Lyon, widely considered PSG’s likeliest title challengers ahead of this season, slipped to 10th, already six points off the pace.
Nigerian youngster Victor Osimhen scored his fifth Ligue 1 goal of the season as Lille claimed a 2-1 win over Angers on Friday.
The 20-year-old Osimhen netted the opener six minutes before half-time to move clear of Lyon’s Memphis Depay at the top of the early goalscoring charts in France.
Luiz Araujo’s fine individual strike in the 53rd minute doubled the lead for last season’s runners-up, who held on to take their third victory of the new campaign despite a late goal from Angers forward Stephane Bahoken.