It is 5.35pm on 6th May 2018. Lille OSC sit 19th in France’s Ligue 1, their ninth consecutive week in the relegation zone. They are also 2-1 down at 18th place Toulouse in the six-pointer to end all six-pointers as both sides scrap to avoid the drop.
Their season has been a disaster, with managerial upheaval, mutinous fans and a looming financial investigation.
Things look bleak. Then, perhaps due to the sheer desperation facing his team, Yves Bissouma (£1.12) – from a scarcely believable 40 yards out – launches a rocket of a free-kick that whistles past Toulouse ‘keeper Alban Lafont (£0.90). Lille are level.
With the hosts flagging, Nicolas Pepe (£6.27) almost immediately breaks away and rounds a walkabout Lafont to roll home, capping an astonishing turnaround.
Les Dogues win again the following week to assure their top-flight status.
Even though they had pulled off the great escape, if anyone had said that – with nine games to go of the current season – the same club would be sitting second, even Les DVE, their most ardent fan group, would not have believed it.
So what has driven this remarkable about-turn?
Undoubtedly, stability off the pitch has been key, with current boss Christophe Galtier’s body of work at St Etienne convincing the board to stick with him – unlike the six other coaches tried between 2015 and 2017. It has paid off handsomely, with direct qualification to the Champions League now looking likely.
A number of young players have flourished under the 52-year-old’s tutelage, none more so than Pepe. Signed by Galtier’s predecessor Marcelo Bielsa, he has scored 16 goals in 26 league outings this term, attracting the attention of Europe’s super clubs – and traders.
The Ivorian could’ve been picked up for £4.15 in January, but as his form rocketed, so did his price, reaching a high of £6.74 in February. His price of £6.27 still represents excellent value, particularly given the transfer speculation he is doing nothing to quell:
“My idea is to end this season in Lille and then, why not, leave for somewhere in Europe. It would be beautiful,” he told French newspaper Le Voix du Nord in January.
BeIN Sports reporter Bel-Abbès Bouaissi claims that Bayern Munich have made a bid worth close to €80m for Lille attacker Nicolas Pépé & that Adidas are involved in the deal – full story https://t.co/lxjI5PC1y7
— Get French Football News (@GFFN) March 19, 2019
Jonathan Bamba (£2.43) and Portuguese forward Rafael Leao (£3.45) have also produced some stellar performances recently, with the latter’s price up 45% over the last three months. In an interview with L’Equipe, his former coach at Sporting Lisbon Tiago Fernandes described him as being “better than Cristiano Ronaldo at youth level”.
These youngsters’ development has been helped by other factors. One is Nicolas Anelka, who joined Les Dogues last year with a nominal brief to coach the youth teams, but who – given his own career trajectory – also provides a valuable sounding board to the first team’s strikers.
Another is the presence of Luis Campos as Sporting Director. He oversaw the development of Monaco’s budding stars in 2016/17 and is fostering a similar environment at the Stade Pierre Mauroy.
All these things together indicate a bright future for Lille – something that looked wholly improbable only ten months ago.