Lille's light burning brighter
Lille began their pre-season round of friendlies with a win in Le Havre last Thursday. It was supposed to be Rangers playing on the Normandy coast to inaugurate the new Stade Oceane, which has been christened 'a mini Allianz Arena' by the French press. The Glasgow club's fall from grace from the days when they used to compete with European heavyweights like Bayern Munich has been steep; Lille are a team heading in the opposite direction.
The new Ligue 1 season is almost upon the northerners, who will once again be among the favourites to finish in the top three. A repeat of their double of 2009-10 is unlikely with Paris Saint-Germain's Qatar-fuelled finances making the playing field anything but level, but Rudi Garcia's squad - third last season - remains one of the French top-flight's brightest. "Lyon have had an identity for several years now. That's an important aspect," PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti said recently when asked to size up his club's title rivals. "Lille too will be in the hunt."
The Italian should know, having seen his team pushed for second place - and automatic qualification for the Champions League - last season by Garcia's men, assembled for significantly less than Ancelotti's blue-chip charges. Lille's stock has continued to rise despite their prize assets being plundered regularly. Some €138m-worth of talent has been sold in recent seasons, not the least of which is Chelsea's latest purchase, Eden Hazard. The northerners have used their funds sensibly, however, and their buys are evidence of their rise to a position of prominence in Ligue 1.
Dimitri Payet was wooed from Saint-Etienne for some €10 million last summer; fellow France international and creative midfielder Marvin Martin has followed suit from Sochaux this for €12 million. Not astronomical sums, perhaps, but - PSG aside - sizeable for Ligue 1. "Since we won the title, and perhaps even before that, the club has changed category," club president Michel Seydoux said. His team should be playing in their spanking brand new stadium come the first home game of the season, embellishing an infrastructure that already includes a state-of-the-art training ground. "It's great to have the Grand Stade, but you also need a good team. Since I've been at the helm of this club, there's a word that I keep repeating: attractiveness."
The fact that Joe Cole last season and Champions League winner Salomon Kalou this found Lille a pleasing-enough destination to leave the English Premier League speaks volumes for how the club are making Seydoux's vision a reality. Though the idea of the arrival Jose Bosingwa and Ibrahim Afellay might not set the pulses of the average Premier League fan racing, Lille supporters certainly would be excited at the prospect. The pair are not the sort of calibre of player that has habitually been associated with their club, but this summer they have.
As the signings of Payet and Martin show, Lille have not neglected to prospect closer to home, and they are now seen as a more than viable option for players to make the next step within France. Like Lyon, who perhaps not coincidentally count Seydoux's brother Jerome on their board, in the opening decade of the millennium, Lille have soaked up the best Ligue 1 has to offer in recent seasons before shipping them on for big profits. With PSG seemingly headed down a more exotic and expensive transfer route, only Marseille and perhaps Montpellier are in a position to rival Lille as the destination of choice for the best homegrown talent. It is a phenomenon that even seems to extend to the backroom staff, with the team doctor now also to take charge of the French national side.
That is something Garcia, albeit tentatively, had been mooted to do following Laurent Blanc's departure. Certainly, his appointment would have prompted a number of "Rudi who?" questions outside France, but the uncompromising 48-year-old's name at the head of Les Bleus would not have raised too many eyebrows inside l'Hexagone. When he succeeded Claude Puel in 2008, Garcia's coaching CV had little on it other than a promising spell at Dijon and a tantalising single season at Le Mans to suggest he could improve on his predecessor's achievements. Four years on, Garcia has comfortably outstripped them, and made Lille one of the most successful - and attractive - Ligue 1 sides. Seydoux, who reinstated Garcia after he was sacked by a wilful sporting director following his first season in charge, must approve.
Top scorers in the division in the previous two seasons, Lille were only bettered by PSG last season in the goalscoring stakes, though their all-round play was considered comfortably in advance of that proffered by Ancelotti's talented but wilful bunch of individuals. While PSG have bought stars to cram into an XI, Lille have carefully handpicked their purchases to match the team's ethos. "Lille is without a doubt one of the best teams in terms of their style of play," Martin said upon signing. "That's what I've always thought when I played against them in previous seasons. The style, which is based on going forward, suits me."
The fluid, eye-catching game Garcia espouses is in stark contrast to his hard-nosed, strait-laced demeanour. When Newcastle United faxed through an offer of €5 million for France international right-back Mathieu Debuchy, Garcia retorted that "they must have the wrong player", while Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa, to name just two, can be happy Didier Deschamps is the man to try to lead Les Bleus to Brazil 2014. "Everyone in the France camp should have been beyond reproach," Garcia said of the shenanigans at Euro 2012. "I think they were on the right path, and it's a shame that, for the sake of one or two individuals, all their good work should be wiped out in a couple of seconds. We should move forward without those who don't respect the shirt."
Garcia does not have such problems at his club. Solid pros such as his captain, Rio Mavuba, goalkeeper Mickael Landreau, and the unsung midfield metronome Florent Balmont, who recently inked a contract extension, are hardly the sort of player to own a Louis Vuitton dummy, never mind spit it out their pram. Those three will again play significant roles both on and off the pitch in the coming season, while Payet, Martin and Kalou will have to fill the creative vacuum left by Hazard's departure. If Brazilian forward Tulio de Melo can avoid injury and young striker Nolan Roux, picked up from Brest to replace Moussa Sow last season, can continue to improve, Lille will once again be pleasing on the eye. Youngsters, such as centre-back Lucas Digne and forward Bruno Gianni, are also being blooded to ensure continuity when the time comes for their senior team-mates to move on.
Given the periodic blood-letting at Lille, that is likely to be next summer for a number of them. Garcia will hope, however, that it will be after not only a successful domestic campaign but one in which they have impressed in Europe, the one area in which he is yet to match Puel. Last season, their inexperience at Champions League level showed as they exited bottom of a manageable-looking group. A play-off has to be negotiated this time around before they can hope to right that wrong, but - despite the loss of Hazard - even the big boys' Allianz Arena should now hold few fears.