Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Les Dogues Have Their Day

Lille with Ligue 1 title (via CBS Sports)

Across the Channel, Les Dogues, that is to say Lille, seem to be having their day in spectacular fashion, a title win this season following flirtation with relegation just the previous campaign- we might wonder what & who has sparked the turnaround. The club, now owned by a Luxembourg based investment group Merlyn Partners SCSP, was managed until just two days after the triumph by Christophe Galtier, who hinted that the change in ownership was at least in part a factor in his decision to depart.



Galtier had arrived in the aftermath of Marcelo Bielsa's short stint in charge, from May to November of 2017, which hadn’t exactly helped a campaign that ended in narrow escape from relegation, thanks to a win over Toulouse in the penultimate game of the season. In something of a parallel to what has now unfolded, the following season ended in a second-place finish & return to the Champions League after seven years away!


Their title-winning achievement is perhaps all the greater when we consider that it was done on less than a quarter of the funds made available to the previously all- conquering Paris Saint Germain. A few games from the final round of Ligue Un fixtures, Kylian Mbappe was at least honest enough to conclude that "Lille will make a good champion if they win it. But with eight defeats, if we lose the title, we're the only ones responsible".


How right he was, the backbone of his unwitting prophecy coming true were also drawn from the ranks of his employers, as Parc Des Princes old boys Mike Maignan, Boubakary Soumaré, Jonathan Ikoné & Timothy Weah all played key roles alongside a resurgent José Fonte & one for the future in Sven Botman. A revamped forward line of Jonathan David & Burak Yılmaz also paid off as the money from a transfer to Napoli for Victor Osimhen was swiftly reinvested, with 13 & 16 goals respectively for the pair. Their last two strikes each coming in the clincher of an away win over Angers, which sealed a fourth title for the champions precisely nobody saw coming, ten years after their last taste of the top.


Though perhaps it shouldn't come as such a surprise given the relative success of the manager's previous eight year stay with Saint-Etienne, where he stepped up from assistant to Alain Perrin to guide them away from the trapdoor into 17th place. The following seven seasons of his tenure all ending with finishes inside the top ten & 2013 delivered a Coupe de la League trophy- the first in 32 years for Les Verts. His work with Pierre- Emerick Aubemayang (who had a stint with Lille as one of many French loan spells away from AC Milan early in his career) was a large part of that success, two goals in fourteen games as a loanee preceded 35 goals in 73 games having made the switch permanent.


Then, just as now, he left his post- as he told L'Equipe of his decision to depart Lille, "I simply have the deep belief that my time is up here.", with the club respecting his choice after four seasons of steady progress. Lyon & Nice are touted as possible next destinations for the man who's won Manager of the Year three times for his undoubted ability to get the best out of young talent.


A gift which also served the club well in time for their previous glory day, a young Eden Hazard the driving force behind a campaign bookended by a penultimate- day away draw with PSG. That third title success with a mind- boggling gap of 57 years between it & a similar such success in 1953-4, a single point separating them & Reims just as fine a margin as the victory we celebrate here. Whilst a more comfortable eight point gap between Lille & Marseille saw the title head their way in 2010-11.


Back then it was the middle phase of Rudi Garcia's time in charge, having also served six years as a player- hailed as a more exciting tactical contrast to Claude Puel & also credited with a philosophy looking to give youth its due, hence the promotion of Hazard from the B team. PSG were on the receiving end of a Coupe De France beating into the bargain as former French national coach Aimé Jacquet hailed him one of the brightest coaching prospects in the country- praise of the sort Galtier may just start picking up if luck carries on smiling on him!


What next, then, for the side once dubbed the Barca of the North by a media which lapped up a 2009-10 season which found Garcia's vintage finishing fourth with 72 goals scored, better even than Auxerre, Lyon & champions Marseille above them?

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