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Resurgent Lens set for Champions League comeback

Resurgent Lens set for Champions League comeback

May 25, 2023 (AFP)

Lens will not beat Paris Saint-Germain to the title, but this Ligue 1 season will be best remembered for the exceptional performances of the northern club who are set to qualify for the Champions League.

The fact PSG have not yet officially sealed a ninth championship in 11 seasons going into the penultimate weekend is partly down to the Qatar-owned club's difficulties in recent months.

However, it is also down to Lens, who have shattered their own points record for a season with two games remaining.

They host already-relegated Ajaccio on Saturday, when a win will see them reach 81 points, more than any other side that has finished as runners-up to Qatar-era PSG.

Mathematically, they could still win a first championship since their sole title to date in 1998, but a six-point deficit to PSG plus a far inferior goal difference makes that prospect unrealistic.

Nobody in Lens will be disappointed at coming second, and a five-point lead over third-placed Marseille means they will be guaranteed that -- and a Champions League group-stage spot -- by beating Ajaccio.

"We must not forget that we have not yet qualified for the Champions League. The last step is always the hardest one," warned stalwart forward Florian Sotoca on Thursday.

The Champions League is a level Lens last graced two decades ago. In 2002/03 they held Bayern Munich and beat AC Milan.

Returning to that stage would be an extraordinary achievement for a club who spent most of the last decade in Ligue 2 before winning promotion in 2020.

It is, however, no less than they deserve for the work done on a modest budget of a reported 62 million euros ($66m).

The club from an old mining community in France's far north -- where the 38,000-capacity of their Stade Bollaert-Delelis is greater than the population of the town itself -- has been well run under the presidency of financier Joseph Oughourlian.

On the pitch, they have recruited wisely and manager Franck Haise has built an outstanding team out of a squad lacking in superstars.

The most notable names are goalkeeper Brice Samba, captain and Ivory Coast midfielder Seko Fofana, and Belgium striker Lois Openda.

Bigger clubs will be circling for them soon, but Lens will hope they stay for the coming European adventure. 

"When I came to Lens, the objective was to take the team back into Ligue 1, which we did in my first year," said Sotoca.

"We had good seasons in the following two years, but this season we have taken the club to a new level.

"It is not an end in itself because a new season will start in a few months.

"We have to prove ourselves every year. We are keeping our feet on the ground because things can change very quickly in football."

Player to watch: Alexandre Lacazette

Lacazette's decision to return to boyhood club Lyon from Arsenal has given his career a shot in the arm even if his team have not performed as well as expected. The striker, who turns 32 on Sunday, has 26 goals in Ligue 1, with only Kylian Mbappe (28) having scored more.

Lacazette has six in his last three games alone, and if he keeps that form up this weekend against Reims he may yet have a chance of preventing Mbappe from ending a fifth consecutive season as Ligue 1's top scorer.  

Key stats

16 - PSG are six points clear of Lens with six points to play for and have a goal difference advantage of 16, making another Ligue 1 title inevitable.

17 - If Lens win this weekend it will be their 17th victory in 19 home league games this season. 

1 - Eight-time champions Nantes are one point from safety with two games left. A defeat for the Canaries this weekend coupled with a win for Auxerre will see Nantes relegated to Ligue 2.

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Saturday

Angers v Troyes, Clermont v Lorient, Lens v Ajaccio, Lille v Nantes, Lyon v Reims, Marseille v Brest, Montpellier v Nice, Rennes v Monaco, Strasbourg v Paris Saint-Germain, Toulouse v Auxerre (all 1900)


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