Ligue 1 kingmakers won’t be Lille, PSG or Monaco; Lens have the chance to decide who takes home the crown

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Paris Saint-Germain will welcome RC Lens to Parc des Princes in Ligue 1 on Saturday for a match that could prove vital in the race for the French title with leaders Lille OSC at home to OGC Nice later in the day.

But, even though the defending champions are just one point behind LOSC, they are not necessarily the team from this weekend’s capital clash who will have the biggest say over this season’s ultimate title winners.

Lens, all the way up in fifth upon their return to Le Championnat for the first time since 2015, have been the surprise package of the campaign in France and are currently unbeaten in 13 league matches.

One of the most in form teams in France will face not only PSG, but will come up against all three main title contenders over their final four matches of this term with the potential to ruin at least one of Lille, PSG and Monaco’s title hopes and potentially save the fading chances of Olympique Lyonnais.  

Les Sang et Or were Ligue 1 winners themselves back in 1998, winning the Coupe de la Ligue in 1999 and also reaching the UEFA Europa League semi-finals in 2000 while boasting the likes of Anto Drobnjak, Stephane Ziani, Tony Vairelles, Vladimir Smicer and the late Marc-Vivien Foe.

While the Pas-de-Calais-based outfit remain tremendously well supported with their spiritual home of Stade Bollaert-Delelis one of the most atmospheric grounds in France with fans present, they have mostly toiled in the second tier over the past decade and twice returned to Ligue 1 as runners-up in the lower division.

Now under the impressive leadership of Franck Haise on the pitch and in the more responsible hands of Joseph Oughourlian off it, after some near-fatal Azerbaijani investment, the Northerners are in their best health for a long time.

LOSC, in particular, will be extremely wary of their bitter rivals as the upstarts would love nothing more than to end Les Dogues’ dreams of a first Ligue 1 crown since 2011, which would be almost as welcome as silverware.

Key to Lens’ rapid rise back to the top end of the French domestic game has been a highly intelligent approach to transfers, not dissimilar to Atalanta BC in Serie A, and the promotion of an emerging coaching talent in Haise.

The 50-year-old had largely been an assistant or reserve team boss up until his 2020 appointment as full-time head coach after Philippe Montanier’s dismissal, but his arrival ensured that the team got over the line in what was a curtailed season and Haise has not looked back since.

Gael Kakuta, Ignatius Ganago, Seko Fofana, Loic Bade, Arnaud Kalimuendo and Wuilker Farinez were added to the squad over the summer of 2020 and while the highly rated Venezuela international Farinez has struggled to dislodge vice-captain Jean-Louis Leca in goal, the others have largely excelled.

Kakuta’s loan has seen the child prodigy return to his formative club a man at the age of 29 and now occupies a talismanic role while Fofana has added steel to the midfield, Ganago and Kalimuendo goals up top and Bade has proved an inspired catch from developmental powerhouse Havre AC.

All of this has been done without Lens’ passionate fans being able to see them play due to the COVID-19 situation in France and the next time the 38,000 (more than the city’s population) or so seater Bollaert venue is open to them, they may well find themselves back in UEFA competition.

Lille, PSG and ASM will not be easy opponents for RCL but none of the three will be relishing coming up against Haise and his men in the next few weeks with Les Parisiens already running the risk of losing home and away after a COVID-influenced 1-0 defeat back on opening day in August.

Kylian Mbappe’s absence with a knock will not help Mauricio Pochettino’s men this weekend as he rests ahead of next week’s UEFA Champions League semifinal second leg with Manchester City, but Lens could equally be without Kakuta who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Leca’s recent injury gives the patient Farinez the chance to impress between the sticks while Florian Sotoca, Cheick Doucoure and Clement Michelin are also back in contention for the visitors in what promises to be another intriguing weekend in this entertaining Ligue 1 title race.