Only last month Lens defender Raphael Varane was profiled as one of our Ligue 1 20 for 20 – players to watch. In the piece it was mentioned how many clubs were keeping an eye on this talented youngster ready to make a move for him in the transfer market. Manchester United and Bayern Munich were the big names in contention, Sir Alex had been rumoured to be considering a £3m bid for the 17-year old.

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This can’t be the best of times to follow Les Sang et Or your team sits precariously in the relegation zone while you look up at your biggest rivals on the brink of their first title since 1954. With the dark clouds circling overhead the Stade Felix Bollaert fans in the Marek stand are beginning to look towards the ray of sunshine coming from the centre of their defence.
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Lee Garrity talks us through this week’s Coupe De France Quarter-Finals

On Tuesday Ligue 2 Reims entertained Ligue 1 side Nice in the first of the Quarter Finals, Daniel Ljuboja gave the visitors the lead on the half hour but Reims hit straight back when Romain Amalfitano side footed home from a Odair Fortes cross. Eric Mouloungui restored the lead for Nice on 48 minutes but once more Reims deservedly hit back, Fortes adding a goal to his earlier assist to force the game into extra time. Mouloungui was to be the hero for Eric Roy’s Nice as substitutes David Bellion & Anthony Mounier combined for the former Strasbourg forwards 2nd goal of the game vindicating Roy’s decision to rest several key players.

There was to be no more giant killing heroics from non league Chambery as Ligue 2 Angers strolled to a 3-0 victory at Grenoble’s Stade des Alpes. On loan Bordeaux man Henri Saivet broke the minnows hearts on the stoke of half time and 2nd half strikes from Sebastien Renouard & Diego Gomez gave the scoreline a one sided look.

Ligue 2 leaders Le Mans travelled east to the capital to face a Paris Saint Germain side who started with a mix of experience and highly rated youth, it was to be the youth that would eventually come out on top. Scoreless at full time and with the hosts down to 10 men the game ebbed and flowed with both sides creating chances, possibly the best of which fell to Le Mans, the visitors also went down to 10 men early in extra time and PSG took hold of the game, taking a 108th minute lead through Jean Christophe Bahebeck and sealing the game through another youngster Neeskens Kebano.

The last of the Quarter Finals was to be the final game played on the notorious Metropole pitch at Lille. The hosts had the better of the chances but visiting Lorient keeper Fabien Audard was in fine form and after extra time the game ended 0-0. The first four penalties were converted before a woeful spot kick from Lorient’s Arnold Mvuemba gave the home side the advantage, both sides scored their next penalty so it fell to Lille’s talisman Eden Hazard to win the game and he did just that although Lorient may feel that the Belgian playmaker should have re-taken the kick after he appeared to stop mid run up before tapping the ball to the stricken Audard’s right hand side to give Lille a 5-3 shootout win and send them into the semi finals alongside Angers Nice & last season’s winners Paris Saint Germain.

 

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Lee Garrity brings you the latest round up from all the action in Ligue 2.

Leaders Le Mans were held to a 1-1 draw with Sedan at the MMArena, losing their 100% record at the new stadium, Thorstein Helstad headed home from close range for his 14th goal of the season on 23 minutes but 9 minutes later Yoann Court fired home a stunning left foot volley from just inside the area for his 2nd goal of the week, both sides had chances to win late on but Le Mans will certainly see this as 2 points dropped.

AC Ajaccio had a fruitful trip to Northern France to face 2nd bottom Vannes, a 2nd half strike from Richard Socrier giving the Corsicans maximum points ,lifting them into 2nd spot as the division’s top scorers Evian TG drew a rare blank at home to mid table Dijon, Sebastien Ribas notching a double to take his season’s tally to 12. Le Harve claimed all 3 points in Monday night’s promotion clash with Tours at the Stade Jules Deschaseaux in a seven goal thriller.

The visitors lead twice through Jeremy Blayac and Karim Saidi with Yohanne Riviere pulling the hosts back into the game, Brice Jovial pulled Le Harve level on 58 minutes and just 11 minutes later they led for the first time through Loic Nestor’s first goal of the season. Tours battled on and look to have earned a point on 83 minutes when Haiti defender Romain Genevois notched his 2nd goal in 3 games, but the celebrations had hardly died down when the visitors were caught napping and Jovial nipped in for his 2nd of the game and 10th of the season as Le Harve move into 4th place 1 point from an quick return to Ligue 1.

Boulogne travelled south to face a Laval side looking nervously at the relegation battle just below them, the Mayenne side unbeaten at the Stade Francis Le Basser and the visitors boasting the League’s best defence with just 15 goals conceded in 24 games and on a 5 match winning streak which saw leaders Le Mans beaten last week, however just 22 minutes in Boulogne found themselves 2-0 down and reduced to 10 men thanks to goals from Pierre Talmont and former Vannes striker Ghislain Gimbert. The visitors battled hard to get a foothold back into the game but were caught out just after the hour mark when Gimbert netted his 2nd, the first time this season Boulogne had shipped more than 2 goals. The night was to belong to Gimbert and he completed his hat trick on 77 minutes firing in from close range to bring Boulogne’s winning run to an abrupt end at the same time easing Laval’s relegation worries.

 

Grenoble remain 7 points from safety as they were defeated 2-0 at Troyes, the 3rd game running Grenoble have failed to hit the net, a problem which must be rectified soon or a second successive relegation looms, a goal of the week contender from Gregory Bettiol and a fine finish from substitute Benjamin Psaume sealed the points at the Stade De L’Aube.

Third bottom Metz gained what could be a valuable point in a goalless draw at home to Chateauroux  , although the home side would have been looking at this fixture as one to take maximum points, they will however take heart with the results for Grenoble and Vannes and also Nimes who remain 4th bottom on 27 points just 1 point above Metz after a 2-1 home reverse against Clermont, Rachid Hamdani fired the visitors ahead early on before a Yannick Boli stooping header 13 minutes from time brought the hosts level, with the game heading for a draw a clumsy challenge gave on loan Sochaux man Sloan Privat the chance for his 14th goal of the season and he duly sent the keeper the wrong way from the spot to sentence Nimes to their 5th successive defeat.

Reims stay 3 points from the drop zone with a useful  1-1 draw at Nantes in front of almost 15000 fans, Serbian striker Felipe Djordjevic’s close range strike gave Nantes a 56 minute lead but a goal 4 minutes from time from substitute Cedric Faure gave Reims a point as they look forward to a French Cup Quarter Final at home to Nice on Tuesday. Another Ligue 2 side in Cup action on Tuesday are Angers and they earned a point at an Istres outfit that came into the game with only 1 defeat in 12. Bordeaux loanee Henri Saivet looped a header over Denis Petric for his 3rd Angers goal. Petric and the woodwork kept Angers from extending their lead and it was against the run of play when the home side drew level, midfielder Riad Nouri firing home to share the spoils.

 

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Starting a new feature on gibfootballshow new writer Lee Garrity takes us to the second division in France. Each week Lee will be keeping us updated in everything that goes on in Ligue 2.

The race to join the French elite looks likely to go to the wire as before this weekend’s fixtures  any team outside the bottom four who can put a run of victories together will look at the table and think maybe , just maybe.

Leaders Le Mans held a 4 point gap between themselves and fourth placed Ajaccio and Les Manceaux ,who moved into the new 25000 capacity MM Arena just two weeks ago remain top courtesy of a 1-0 victory over bottom placed Grenoble, both teams were relegated from Ligue 1 last season but now find themselves heading in different directions. Norwegian International Thorstein Helstad’s 58 minute goal enough to give Le Mans the three points and take Helstad to the top of the scorer’s charts with 13 goals.

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Throughout today ten French teams will battle it out for a place in the last eight of the Coupe de France. Last night the well fancied Stade Rennes were surprisingly dumped out by Ligue 2 side Reims. With the game poised at three all Rennes were awarded and missed two penalties, and of course then lost the game 4-3 in extra time.

Everyone likes a shock and last night’s was good but there is one team that everyone should be looking out for today. Sochaux after their fantastic 5-1 demolition of Rennes at the weekend make the daunting trip to the small town of Chambéry. Why “daunting” I hear you ask?

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The new season in France’s Ligue 1 started this week, in anticipation I read many previews telling me who the best teams would be and the dark horses etc, the usual suspects were there, Lyon, Bordeaux and Champions Marseille all favourites for the title, There was a name I kept seeing with the same prediction it worried me, all the previews tipped Rudi Garcia’s Lille for a title push, the outside bet if you will.

All this expectation should be a good thing, If “the experts” believe Les Lillois have the players and management in place to have a real good crack at the Ligue 1 title, then surely there must be something there, from following the team for 6 years now it’s not a position myself or the team are used to being in. Since I started following LOSC back in 2004 I have always viewed them as a team happily performing under the radar, no big flashy signings, a very stable club, developing good young players, European football was the cherry on top.

Not a household name by any means, however 3 Champions League appearances in the past 8 years and some great finishes in Ligue 1 make it hard to fathom that only 10 years ago the club gained promotion to Ligue 1, Bosnian manager took over a club trying to stay afloat in Ligue 2 in 1998, and by 2002 they were finishing 3rd in Ligue 1 a meteoric rise in fortunes for the small northern club.

Claude Puel - The Mastermind

Claude Puel was the man in charge when my affinity began and he had a very good team, with an excellent work ethic, Gregory Tafforeau and Mathieu Chalme were the fullbacks, I really admired Tafforeau, a no-nonsense hardworking fullback with a great left-foot, you could see the potential to be the Captain he became, Chalme I must say looking back never impressed me the way he has at Bordeaux, however he was steady and a decent defender and went about his business, I preferred the now Lazio player Stephane Lichsteiner and was happy when Chalme left to Blanc’s Bordeaux, Stephane impressed with willingness to attack and quality of crosses.

Puel’s team suffered defensively, not a week went by when there wasn’t a Tony Sylva goalkeeping error or Tavlaridis had messed up causing another goal, Vitakic, Rafael and then Plestan were all chosen as Efstathios’s partner and they never looked very solid, but somehow in the 2005/06 season they only conceded 31 goals the same amount as Champions Lyon, and finished 3rd, this was mostly down to the hard work of the midfield. Puel’s team philosophy was based on discipline, effort, and the desire to close the opponent down at all times, the less time they had on the ball, the quicker you could retrieve the ball.

Most games the team was set-up in a 4-5-1 formation with Abdul Kader Keita playing on the right as an advanced midfielder, the mercurial Jean Makoun was the general, alongside him, the long serving Stephane Dumont who was the captain at the time, ex-Tottenham man Milenko Acimovic was the “playmaker” so to speak and on the left was young local boy Mathieu Debuchy; Debuchy, Dumont and Makoun were the ones who pressured the most, and they were backed up by the impressive youngsters Mathieu Bodmer and Yohan Cabaye, this left the trio of Acimovic, Keita and Odemwingie to hit teams on the counter attack.

Peter Odemwingie

This was the team I fell in love with, the duo of Odemwingie and Keita were just breathtaking, I will never forget the first home game of the 2006/07 season what better than a match against your bitter rivals, Lille did not let the home fans down, on a high after the 2-1 away win at Rennes Les Dogues turned on the style, RC Lens were handed a thumping 4-0 defeat, Kader Keita delivering two fantastic crosses for Peter Odemwingie to put away in style, apart from a 3-0 win against Bordeaux the league campaign never got much better than that first home game, a tough Champions League campaign ultimately cost the team dear and Lille finished that season in 10th place. Victory over Milan in the San Siro followed by the high profile 2-0 aggregate defeat by Manchester United was the highlights of Lille’s season.

By the start of the 2007 season it was all change in Lille, Puel was still in charge but the team I knew and loved had been ripped apart 13 players left the Metropole that summer, Odemwingie, Keita, Bodmer. Chalme, Rafael and Tavlaridis the big name departures, in their place brought in was Marko Maric, Franck Beria and Luis Yanes.

As a fan I was gutted, I had planned a trip to Lille in March 2007 to watch them take on Le Mans at the Metropole, only to have the trip cancelled the night before due to a fire at a warehouse in London, all Eurostar trains were cancelled for 24 hours, gone was my chance to see Odemwingie & Co.

It was obvious the intentions of the Lille board, sell the stars and bring in the youth, Only 4 of the players that played in the opening win at Rennes started the first game of the 2007/08 season in a 0-0 draw at home to Lorient, a very frustrating season 18 draws in 38 league games, saw Lille finish in 7th place.

The only bright sparks of the season were the young players coming through, Cabaye, Chedjou, Rami, Mirallas and the exciting Brazilian Michel Bastos.

In 2008 the unthinkable happened the mastermind behind all the success Lille had had Claude Puel left the club, his excellent results with a small club had earned him the job at French Champions Lyon taking with him the philosophy that had led this team to Champions League football, in all fairness he had taken the club as far as he could and you cannot take away the man’s ambition, Jean Makoun followed him to the Stade Gerland, the new Lille era would start without their best player.

Rudi Garcia

Rudi Garcia was man picked to led this young team an ex-Lille player who had performed miracles with a team that had gained promotion to the league in 2004 and he took them to the heady heights of 9th a tremendous achievement, Garcia known for his attacking brand of football, how would a team brought up on a counter-attacking disciplined formation take to a forward thinking coach. Garcia went about bringing his own players in, midfield dynamo Florent Balmont was joined by Ligue 1 veteran Pierre-Alain Frau, striker Tulio De Melo, the permanent signing of Rio Mavuba who had impressed on loan, and increased minutes for young players Emerson, Rami and youth sensation Eden Hazard, the squad looked weak in areas, I had doubt over how they would cope in the 38 game season.

Three games into the season and it wasn’t looking good, a decent draw away at Nancy then a home defeat 3-1 against Le Mans, and an away loss against Rennes by 2 goals to 1, the future did not look bright at all, Garcia then signed Robert Vittek and the formation changed from what was mostly a 4-5-1 to a more attacking version of 4-3-3, Vittek and Hazard began to play more and Lille went on a unbelievable run, in 19 matches they only lost once, conceding 18 goals but scoring 31 they began to create a reputation of being a very dangerous team, scoring the 4th highest amount of goals in the league and finishing an impressive 5th, for a season that started poorly there was many positives to take, Garcia had given Lille an identity again, combining Puel’s high pressure game with an attacking mindset that teams had to be wary of.

The 2009/10 season was met with a mixture of expectation and cautiousness, Rudi Garcia was briefly sacked by the Lille board, only to be brought back in, which could explain why only two players were brought in to strengthen the side, ex-French International Goalkeeper Mickael Landreau and Le Mans winger Gervinho, the former excited me and fellow Lille fans, known for his explosive pace and goal scoring abilities he could form a potent strike force with De Melo and Hazard, Landreau a very experience keeper, brought in to try and sure up a shaky defence, disaster struck in a pre-season training session Landreau ruptured his right knee and wasn’t seen in a Lille jersey until October, a major blow to Rudi Garcia’s plans.

Eden Hazard - The Young Wizard

A very poor start to the season defeats to Lorient, Marseille and PSG in the first 4 games saw Lille with only 1 point out of a possible 12, the first win of the season came at home to Sochaux, Debuchy scoring the only goal of the game, this sparked a fantastic run over 21 games they lost only 3, 14 wins scoring an amazing 46 goals, the catalyst behind the great run were new signing Gervinho with 13 goals, youth sensation Eden Hazard and the goals of ageing striker Pierre-Alain Frau having an Indian Summer to what could only be described as a faltering career 13 goals his biggest haul since 2002, Lille ended the season with 5 wins out of 6, that last win however cost Les Dogues a place in the Champions League, losing out to Auxerre by one point, they finished the season with 72 goals scored more than any other team in the league and 40 goals conceded, only 4 teams conceded fewer, Eden Hazard picked up the award of best young player in Ligue 1 for the second year in a row, more importantly they were amongst the top-tier of French clubs again, their star players linked again with the cream of European Clubs.

In what has been a very slow summer for transfers, Moussa Sow of Rennes has been Lille’s only new signing, this season they will rely heavily on the stars of the last campaign, I would love all the “experts” to be correct and Les Dogues push on and challenge for the title, however with the history the club has you will forgive me if I am very sceptical, Pierre-Alain Frau will not have another 13 goal season, the chances of Tulio De Melo staying fit for a whole year are just as unlikely and with the transfer deadline still 21 days away, somewhere a big name player is going to move, and replacements have to be bought, if Gervinho, Hazard, Rami and Cabaye are all still present at the Metropole come the first of September I will be a very happy fan. Lille are a selling club and you could argue that last season they punched above their weight, Lille have to sell their star players to make money, with the new 50,000 sweater stadium due to be opened in 2012 bills have to be paid, every player not matter the talent has a price.

When you see a team you support constantly linked with having a good season, it puts you on edge, why can’t they just leave us alone, and let a great season happen by surprise, experts, bookies, ex-players the more they mention your chances the more you believe it yourself, only then to be brought crashing back down to earth when you lose 3-0 at home to a relegation candidate, luckily Lille started their season with a good 1-1 draw away at another top tip Stade Rennais, I just hope all the expectation doesn’t turn into a curse, and Rudi Garcia and his men can play to their best, Champions League qualification for me would be a great year.

I was lucky enough to visit Anfield in March and watched my team in the flesh for the first time and just like in 2007 I plan to visit Lille this season and watch a game at the Metropole, not sure who the opponent will be and it doesn’t matter, I will be going to see Hazard, Gervinho, Cabaye & Co. Hoping nothing stops my journey this time, not only because I want to visit the Metropole and sit in the Stade du Nord with the hardcore fans, but I feel that if I don’t visit this year and see the current star players then just like in 2008, 2011 could be the start of another rebuilding job for Rudi Garcia.

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