Lille have been one of Ligue 1’s most competitive sides since Christophe Galtier’s appointment in 2017 but if they reach their promised land on Sunday the size of their achievement will be difficult to overstate.
Lille will be champions if they win at Angers or, failing that, if they match Paris Saint-Germain’s result away to Brest. PSG’s yearly budget is well over four times the size of Lille’s €150m allowance. As L’Équipe reported this year, PSG have 13 of the 15 highest-paid players in French football, Wissam Ben Yedder and Cesc Fàbregas of Monaco being the other two. Lille’s first-choice team cost a little over £66m, about a third of what PSG paid for either Kylian Mbappé or Neymar. Title rivals Monaco and Lyon also have significantly bigger budgets.
Rightly, much has been made of the sporting director Luís Campos’s role in building such an eclectic but talented and cheap squad before he left last December. Campos, who laid the foundations for Monaco’s shock title win in 2017, was central to the influx of under-the-radar Turkish talents such as the right-back Zeki Çelik, the Europa League hat-trick hero Yusuf Yazici and the veteran striker Burak Yilmaz, arguably Ligue 1’s player of season. Lille’s squad is perfectly balanced.
In truth, however, a title win would be a miracle of Galtier’s coaching. Lille are often impenetrable – 22 goals against is comfortably the lowest in the division – but they can score from all areas. Galtier has masterfully found a solution to every problem.
The 54-year-old Frenchman balanced a gruelling Europa League schedule expertly in the first half of the season, posting a famous 3-0 win at Milan. When Yilmaz missed 13 games due to injury in the spring, Galtier cajoled impressive stand-in displays from the forgotten man Timothy Weah and the club’s record signing, Canadian striker Jonathan David, who had started nervously. After two goals in his first 25 games, David has 10 in his past 22, including winners against PSG and Marseille.
David’s improvement is testament to Galtier’s warm and passionate man-management. Under Galtier every one of the first-team core group has improved. The commanding goalkeeper Mike Maignan has quietly become one of Europe’s best. The former Southampton and West Ham defender José Fonte has maintained the best form of his career at 37, starting all but six games in all competitions. Fonte’s centre-back partner Sven Botman’s assured season has pushed him to the top of many elite clubs’ wishlists at the age of 21.
The winger Jonathan Bamba, previously criticised for a lack of end product, was scintillating before Christmas in adding a range of key goals, assists and man-of-the-match performances, although he has since dropped off. Renato Sanches’s rebirth as a dynamic midfield dictator has been remarkable, despite struggling with injuries. After Sanches’s disastrous spell at Swansea, this is perhaps Galtier’s greatest achievement.
Lille’s team is a roll-call for Ligue 1’s player of the season. The low-key midfield grace of Benjamin André, the resurgence of highly regarded domineering sentinel Boubakary Soumaré and the division’s leading left-back, Reinildo Mandava, deserve praise. Without Yilmaz, however, Galtier might have already fallen short.
Yilmaz was signed as an experienced leader to replace Loïc Rémy and little was expected of him. But in much the same way as Radamel Falcao’s example and finishing helped Monaco to the 2017 title, Yilmaz has coaxed his youthful colleagues through tight spots and produced some supreme moments of quality to drag his team over various lines. Most notably, with Lille 2-0 down at Lyon, Yilmaz produced possibly the most outstanding individual display of the season with a beautifully shaped free-kick, a deft assist for David and the calmest of dinked finishes to win it 3-2.
It could be argued that this strangest of seasons has assisted Lille. Aside from some small crowds during a brief spell last autumn, this campaign has largely been played out behind closed doors. PSG have lost five home games, more than in the previous seven seasons combined.
However, PSG’s away record has also been average by their standards, underlining the strength and depth this season. The fact that Brest are arguably favourites for the drop into the bottom three after being one of the most exciting and creative sides during the season’s first third is particularly astonishing. Lille have gelled faster, adapted quicker and been far more astute than PSG, who have occasionally run short on inspiration and been picked off by teams including the relegation battlers Lorient and Nantes.
Sunday is likely to be Galtier’s last game on the Lille bench. The typically enterprising Nice, underperforming Lyon and Napoli are attempting to sign France’s most coveted coach.
With Monaco starting slowly, Lyon infuriating with fluctuations in form and PSG self-destructively sacking Thomas Tuchel before producing some alarmingly porous domestic displays under Mauricio Pochettino, Lille have unquestionably been Ligue 1’s best team. But there is much still to play for on Sundaynight.