AN A drop was expected, but losing 3-0 to Troyes and ending the match with nine men was worse than anyone expected for Lille. Troyes’ win was a vindication move for a club that seemed to be floundering down the drain at the end of February, but bounced back in wonderful fashion. But it was much more an indictment of how poisonous Lille’s title defense has become, and how dire next season could be for the club. They are tenth in the table, have a negative goal difference and have only won one of their last six games.
Their title defense officially ended when PSG clinched the title last weekend, but the decline began last summer. Boubakary Soumaré and Mike Maignan were the first to leave, followed by manager Christophe Galtier. Soumaré wanted to play in the Premier League with Leicester; Maignan was drawn by the opportunity to represent Milan, one of Europe’s most storied clubs; and, after years of financial friction at Lille and St-Étienne, Galtier left for Nice, where he received substantial backing in the transfer window.
More outings followed. Luiz Araújo went to Atlanta United and Jonathan Ikoné signed for Fiorentina. florentine they’ve done well this season, and they still have a cry for a European place, but it’s not the Premier League; and Ikoné decided to leave Lille even after reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League. Left back Reinildo was a January game. The Mozambican international was left without a contract in the summer, so there was something inevitable about his transfer, and it would have been hard to turn down Atletico Madrid, where he has become a regular. However, these moves add to a worrying trend that could see the club return to the depths of the 2017-18 season, when they narrowly avoided relegation.
On a sunny afternoon in eastern France on Sunday, Troyes was ready for the game, but he wasn’t under huge pressure to get a result. Among their relegation rivals, St-Étienne had already lost; Bordeaux was facing a much more difficult match against Nice; and Angers were playing against the best team in the league in Monaco. One point would have been enough for the hosts, who have been a handful all season: a paradigm of courage, determination and, at times, viciousness with both Bruno Irles and his predecessor, Laurent Batlles. The goals have been few, but commitment has not been lacking.
Troyes can be a frustrating opponent, but for Lille to suffer such a collapse was spectacular. The game started slow. Lille were missing Jonathan Bamba and Xeka, and they were forceful in the early stages. Things began to unravel just before half-time, when Benjamin André, who is normally a safe presence but perhaps felt a bit harassed in a two-man midfield alongside Renato Sanches, conceded a penalty. Florian Tardieu cleverly converted to give Troyes the lead.
Lille showed initiative after the break until Sanches was booked for a foul and then again for dissent. He left the pitch suffering from a stroke, leaving the visitors with André as their natural midfielder. Five minutes later, Sven Botman, perhaps rusty from his long spell on the sidelines, conceded another penalty, before Burak Yilmaz, a player who has been the shell of the inspirational leader he was last season, was also sent off, for a clumsy challenge. The attitude displayed by Sanches, Yilmaz and, to a large extent, their team-mates revealed just how much could happen to Lille next season.
We have seen this season that supposedly “biggest” clubs that don’t build their rosters well (Bordeaux, St-Étienne) can go downhill and Lille are hardly built for the future. José Fonte, Xeka and Yilmaz end their contract in the summer. Renato Sanches looks set to move abroad, as does Jonathan David, even if his poor form may have lowered his price. André, right-back Zeki Çelik and Bamba are out of contract next summer, and the players who have arrived are not exactly up to the task.
There have been glimpses of winger Edon Zhegrova, but Hatem Ben Arfa’s experiment was a disaster. Timothy Weah has been unable to kick, hampered by a number of injuries. Ivo Grbić, the highly touted player on loan from Atlético Madrid, has been poor in goal. Botman is likely on the go as well. One wonders what, if anything, will be left of this team three months from now.
Manager Jocelyn Gourvennec has divided opinion. He led the club to the Champions League round of 16, but he also appears to be overwhelmed with the current generation of players, who seem to lack drive and purpose. Following Galtier would have been difficult for anyone, and the job is only going to get harder. Rebuilding in the summer is unlikely to improve the team, especially if the owners decide to cash in on Bamba or Çelik.
The financial situation of the club has always made investing a challenge, but money is not the biggest problem. The confluence of expired and short-term contracts is to blame. That’s not due to balancing the books. It is due to poor planning. If Lille doesn’t produce the kind of change it enjoyed under Galtier four seasons ago, it may join Bordeaux and Sainté to be another French giant circling down the drain.
Lyon beat Marseille 3-0 at the Vélodrome to keep alive a dim hope of playing in Europe next season. Moussa Dembélé and Karl Toko Ekambi scored, but the star of the show was undoubtedly Malo Gusto. Still just 18, the product of the academy set Dembélé up for a brilliant career and he ran Dimitri Payet and Sead Kolašinac irregularly all night. No longer fighting Léo Dubois for playing time, the youngster continues to make impressive progress. He may form, along with Castello Lukeba, Maxence Caqueret and Rayan Cherki, Lyon’s next big class of youth products.
Reims are now guaranteed to stay on their feet after their 2-1 win over Lorient. The current bottom three are well worth the drop, but for the Champagne side to be safe with three matches to spare is no small feat. They have invested significantly in Azor Matusiwa and Jens Cdonde, but coach Óscar García deserves much of the credit. Their disciplined and intelligent system has helped them avoid a return to Ligue 2 despite lengthy injury absences for key players like El Bilal Touré and Hugo Ekitiké. Garcia’s last job in Ligue 1, at St-Étienne, was disappointing, but he has impressed this season. Reims are also a safe bet to stay in the top flight next season, even if Ekitiké and Wout Faes leave this summer.
Part of Reims achieving safety was due to Metz failing to beat a Montpellier side that have been shocking in 2022. Injuries have played their part, but Metz’s lack of mental fortitude is equally to blame. Despite taking a 2-0 lead against Montpellier, they conceded two goals in the last 10 minutes and remain six points behind St-Étienne in playoff position.