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From Champions To Crisis: Lille Lie in Ruin

 • by Andrew Gibney
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Is there a sport in the world with more cliches than football? Doubtful. A club being “too big to go down” is one of the best, but tell that to Aston Villa or Leeds United and now French side Lille.

Come the end of the season, seven years will have passed since Les Dogues completed a league and cup double. Before Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners and it was Guillaume Hoarau not Edinson Cavani scoring goals and Lille beat Les Parisiens 1-0 in the final of the Coupe de France.

Then a 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes handed the northern side their first title in 57 years.

It was an surprising as it was sensational, but a midfield three of Yohan Cabaye, Florent Balmont and Rio Mavuba anchored the side and let Eden Hazard, Gervinho and Moussa Sow kill opposing sides on the break.

Seven years is a long time in football, but the last 12 months have felt even longer.

Gerard Lopez arrived as Lille’s new owner at the end of January last year. The former owner of Lotus in Formula 1 had big plans for the team:

“This season is a transition year but next season we would like to get among the top six,” he told French radio station RMC.

“Once we are there, it’s about the top four, then on to Europe. From that point on, anything is possible.

“I want LOSC to be one of those teams going for the title within two years, or at least, in the top three. Taking over at LOSC and not having ambition in Ligue 1 would be a lack of respect for the club.”

On deadline day six new players would arrive, an attempt to kick start the first phase of Lopez’s plan. Even that early on, Lille hit their first bump in the road.

The new faces failed to gel and the more established players had to hold their own. Eventually the club finished 11th, ten points clear of safety. A great sigh of relief was felt across the northern city.

In the summer, wholesale changes were made. Famed influential coach Marcelo Bielsa was handed the reigns and the Argentine boss went about shaping the playing staff in his image.

In the last 12 months, 20 members of last season’s squad have left. Collectively that’s 27,325 minutes – or 303 complete matches – of Ligue 1 experience lost. Any club would struggle to replace their know how.

Fourteen new players either arrived or were called up from the youth system to take part this term, their average age just 21.2 years old.

Despite an opening day victory over Nantes, which was a stunning, enjoyable 3-0 win, the bright points have been few are far between.

After a terrible start, Bielsa was relieved of his duties, eventually replaced by Christophe Galtier in the new year. The club are now in the midst of a relegation battle, with no obvious route of escape.

Unlike struggling sides in the Premier League, who when the January window opens scramble to spend money to try to spark a revival, Lille were forbidden from going down that path by the DNCG  – France’s football finance ombudsman.

They keep track of the book-keeping, ensuring everyone can pay their way and meet the financial agreements they have made before the season starts.

Lille couldn’t.

Investigations have been made surrounding how Lopez is funding the club, from shell companies who officially own one per cent stakes apparently calling the shots, to underhanded deals with businesses set up the Cayman Islands. It’s not fun reading for LOSC fans.

At this stage everything is alleged, but when the DNCG announce they are not convinced a club have the funds they claim, and they can’t quickly prove otherwise, something isn’t right.

They banned Lille from signing any players in January and they must come up with €25million before their next meeting in April.

It is now being reported by French newspaper L’Equipe, that part of the DNCG’s sanction against the club means if they are not able to raise funds, they will be automatically relegated to Ligue 2, regardless of what happens on the pitch.

Since the summer after they won the title in 2011 to the present day, according to figures via transfermrkt.com, Lille have made £253.1million in player sales, spending £152.25million (£65million of which was this summer).

This is the club which gave the footballing world Hazard, Cabaye, Debuchy, Gervinho, Divock Origi and Idrissa Gueye and now, after a takeover, they can’t balance the books.

With the January window closed and just €15million made from the sale of Martin Terrier to Lyon, all eyes return to the pitch. Lopez made a call on deadline day to not sanction any more departures, hoping the players they have can secure their Ligue 1 status, which would mean more than making a quick profit.

Which makes even less sense if L’Equipe’s report is true. Why secure the €25million needed, if relegation is going to be the outcome regardless.

Last Sunday, Edgar Íe scored his first goal for the club in injury time, stealing a 2-1 victory at home to Strasbourg, a vital three points, but perhaps just a stay of execution.

Currently in 17th place, just two points ahead of Toulouse in the second automatic relegation place, Lille welcome PSG to the Stade Pierre Mauroy on Saturday afternoon. A team which has lost just two league games all season.

After Les Parisiens visit is an away trip to Nantes. That is followed up with Lyon and Angers at home, Nice away, Montpellier at home and Monaco away.

It is very realistic that with eight games to go, Lille may only reach the 29-point mark, just four more than they have now. Caen survived on the final day last season, they finished on 37 points.

Les Dogues have six home games left which would be labeled as winnable, but you would also have said the same about many of the 11 home matches they have played already, of which they’ve won just four.

Unlike Lille, the teams above them have also moved to strengthen in January. Saint-Etienne brought in experience with Neven Subotic and former Lille defender Mathieu Debuchy, plus returning former Ligue 1 stars Paul-Georges Ntep and Yann M’Vila.

Bordeaux have Martin Braithwaite on loan from Middlesbrough, he previously scored goals for Toulouse who themselves picked up Firmin Mubele from Rennes, another goal-scorer.

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Lille did manage to bring one player in, recalling Lebo Mothiba from his loan at Valenciennes. The 22-year-old netted  eight goals in Ligue 2 this term and will get the chance to save his parent club.

Galtier’s side can’t even blame bad luck this term. They have an Expected Goals tally of 19.03 this season yet have found the net 21 times. Their Expected Goals Against is 34.12, they’ve conceded 34. Statistically Lille are actually where they should be, with the second worst xG in Ligue 1.

Struggling clubs, such as Lille, will always need and depend on one or two teams having a worse second half of the season, as it gives them a chance to make up ground. However, assessing the sides them in the table there is a sense Lille are unlikely to put together a saving run of form – especially with the fixture list falling so cruelly against them.

While side plays each other twice, the order in which those games fall can play a huge part. Lille’s four final matches come against teams in the bottom half. If they are still within touching distance, they may need all 12 points to save their Ligue 1 status.

A year is a long time in football. Lille have gone from Champions League hopefuls to relegation favourites in that time and all under the guidance of new owners and four management teams.

So don’t let anyone tell you Lille are too big to go down – although their fans will be clinging on to that old cliche over the coming months.

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