While the trio of Brest, Monaco and Nice are still firmly in the driver’s seat for France’s Champions League allocation, another more familiar contender may be entering the frame if the recent results of Lens are anything to go by.
A comprehensive 3-1 home win over Strasbourg, their third in a row in the league, was impressive indeed, not only for how they expressed their solidity – as they had in previous wins over Nantes and Toulouse – but for their bravura performance in attack. In those previous wins Lens had kept clean sheets but there was something of the scrappy to their goals, and they seemed a far cry from the electric side that was consistently able to pour forward at will last year, running Paris Saint-Germain to within a point of the title.
They had prefaced this current run by being eliminated from the Coupe de France by Monaco and losing to fellow European hopefuls Nice in decisive fashion, their confidence seemingly sapped by a frustrating failure to get a result against PSV Eindhoven. Their famous win over Arsenal ultimately proved inconsequential in their quest to remain in the Champions League heading into the new year.
In the current run, they could rightly point to the absence of the midfielder Salis Abdul Samed, away at the Africa Cup of Nations. But while Samed was only on the bench on Saturday, with the midfield duo of Andy Diouf and Neil El Aynaoui impressing, it was the team’s forward players who made the difference against Strasbourg, having been accused of turning in relatively anonymous performances this season.
Throughout the match, the hosts – particularly the attacking trident of Elye Wahi, Florian Sotoca and David Costa – cut through Strasbourg seemingly at will, winning decisively in a match in which several fine saves from Alaa Bellaarouch kept the scoreline from being more lopsided.
Costa was the star of the show as he showed his creativity and quality on the ball, scoring for the third match running and adding an assist. Since overcoming a shoulder injury earlier this season, the Portuguese youth international has been a much needed creative fulcrum, and Lens have won five of the matches in which he has appeared since returning. The same is true of Sotoca, whose level has scarcely dropped this season, but has too often found himself lacking teammates ready to shoulder the load going forward after the departure of Loïs Openda.
Openda’s nominal replacement, of course, is Wahi, who scored and set up Costa and found himself on the scoresheet for the first time since November. Bought from Montpellier at an eye-watering price – for a club of Lens’ means – of €30m, he has been inconsistent, impressing in the Champions League (see the win over Arsenal) but too often disappearing in the league.
That’s not to say that Wahi’s performances dented the confidence that his teammates had in him. “This goal will be a big relief for him, a weight will be lifted off of his shoulders,” said the Lens goalkeeper Brice Samba. “We didn’t give up on him, and the coach continued to start him. I hope it will have a knock-on effect and that he scores a lot of goals.”
Franck Haise, Lens’ manager, was similarly bullish about the young striker. He noted that the inclusion of Costa, rather than a more natural wide player like Adrien Thomasson or Angelo Fulgini, was a move to get the best out of the former Montpellier striker, who is still working on realising his potential.
“We brought more players closer to Elye,” said Haise. “He works very hard, much more than he did initially. He didn’t necessarily arrive ready to play physically. He’s had some struggles, and it’s not easy for a young player. I’m here to help him, to give him confidence. When I see that he responds to what I ask of him, and that I see his potential, I know it’s going to work.”
That faith from Haise seems to underscore that Wahi is coming good, even if his manager may be edging away from the pitch. Having recently served a touchline ban, Haise had touted the possibility of remaining in the stands, averring that he can visualise the action better and develop a method of tactical observation. The Frenchman ultimately decided against remaining in the stands against Strasbourg.
Wherever Haise wants to watch his team’s matches, he seems to be making a difference with his faith in the likes of Wahi and Costa being rewarded. There is something of a caveat over this particular match as Strasbourg, while having been in good form, were missing as many as five attackers. But Samba had some impressive saves to make as well. Thus, whether it be from the stands or from the touchline, Haise clearly has his team on the up. With winnable matches on the horizon a tilt at a return to the Champions League is looking an increasingly distinct possibility.
There are still 13 matches to play in the season, but did this weekend’s results seal the title for PSG? After Brest could only draw against Clermont, and Monaco beat Nice, the capital side are now 11 points ahead of Les Aiglons. The Coupe de France and the Champions League will see Luis Enrique’s side stretched at times over the next few months, but having played two of their closest pursuers (Brest and Lille) in recent weeks, there isn’t exactly a raft of challenging fixtures ahead for the leaders. While it’s not impossible to see PSG dropping 11 points between now and the end of the season, to imagine Monaco, Brest or Nice maintaining near-perfect form over that spell seems rather unlikely.
Another week, another win for Lyon. In a tightly packed relegation battle, it’s far too early to declare Les Gones safe, but it’s also getting harder to ignore the positive effect Pierre Sage has had on his side, namely getting the best out of players who are products of the academy. Alexandre Lacazette was on the scoresheet again on Sunday evening – only Kylian Mbappé has more goals in the league this season – but it was Maxence Caqueret who hit the winner, and he and Corentin Tolisso consistently combined well in midfield, while Anthony Lopes produced several fine saves. By fostering a culture rooted in the identity of the club, Sage seems to be reaching the majority of his players. While Europe this season is out of the question, more positive developments over the summer could see Lyon back among the European hopefuls in six months’ time.
Finally, a word on Lorient. Les Merlus are, like Lyon, far from safe this season, but with two wins and a draw in their last three matches, the latest a clinical 2-0 home win over Reims, the Breton side have demonstrably turned things around, largely due to the positive effect their January signings have had. Indeed, the primary three – striker Mohamed Bamba, midfielder Imran Louza and winger Panos Katseris – have combined for five goals and three assists in that spell. With winnable matches against Strasbourg and Nantes to come, should this level of play continue, Régis Le Bris’ side should just about be assured of retaining their place in the top flight next season.