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Lille’s current crop of misfits and young guns have secured a long-awaited return to the Champions League

Nicolas Pepe has grabbed the headlines, but Jose Fonte and Loic Remy have been equally important

There is more to life in Ligue 1 than PSG.

The Parisians may have won six of the last seven titles and finished 16 points clear this season but scratch beneath the surface and you uncover one of football’s brilliant stories.

Lille have gone from escaping relegation by a single point to league runners up and a Champions League spot in the space of 12 months.

Nicolas Pepe is going to be a wanted man this summer

Getty - Contributor
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Nicolas Pepe is going to be a wanted man this summer

Last season Lille finished in 17th place, avoiding relegation by a single point ahead of Toulouse.

Christophe Galtier took over midway through the season after Marcelo Bielsa’s disastrous tenure and the club only avoided relegation thanks to a 3-2 win over Toulouse in the penultimate game of the season.

Last summer was used a period of rebuilding for Galtier to mend Bielsa’s burned bridges with the squad and although the gloom at the club cleared, no one could have expected him to turn things around so sensationally this season – especially using a squad full of youth and misfits.

*insert immature joke about shirt numbers here*

AFP or licensors
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*insert immature joke about shirt numbers here*

Half the squad were shipped out in the transfer window to be replaced with young guns Jonathan Ikone, from PSG, Zeki Celik, Rafael Leao and Jonathan Bamba, all hungry to prove what they could do.

While some crucial experience was added through veterans Jose Fonte and Loic Remy.

The combination of youthful vibrance and cool heads proved hugely successful in Galtier’s first full season at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Siri, show me a leader

Getty - Contributor
5
Siri, show me a leader

The transformation from last season was stunning. 

Lille started the season with eight wins from their first 11 games to announce that the relegation-threatened team of the previous season was dead and buried.

Fonte arrived from his bizarre stint in China to instantly slot in to the middle of defence and even at 35 years old, the Portuguese played a whopping 34 games in the league as the side conceded just 30 goals.

Bringing in Fonte, one of the very few, if not the only player to win the EFL Trophy and the Euros, was a masterstroke in providing a partner to the more inexperienced centre-backs.

32-year-old Remy was drafted in from Las Palmas and although his impact wasn’t as significant, his six goals in 24 games (12 starts) is no bad return.

His goal shown in the clip above was the strike that beat Bordeaux and secured Lille’s qualification for next season’s Champions League – What more do you want from the replacement striker you signed for just £1 million?

Fulham loanee Rui Fonte and former Southampton man Jose Pied make up the crew of misfits prospering in the north of France.

No filter Lille

Reuters
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No filter Lille

With Fonte and friends suring up the backline and Remy coming on to do the business when needed, Nicolas Pepe, the undoubted star of this side, was free to run riot down the right.

Pepe’s numbers in league are astonishing for a player outside PSG – he’s scored 20 goals and provided 11 assists in 36 league games for Lille this year.

Only Kylian Mbappe has scored more goals and only Nimes’ Teji Savanier has set his teammates up for more goals.

One is the most exciting winger in Ligue 1, the other is Neymar

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One is the most exciting winger in Ligue 1, the other is Neymar

In April Lille put in a performance top crown Galtier’s project this season when they thrashed PSG 5-1 in the league.

Pepe was sensational as he scored Lille’s second goal and set up two more to humble the French giants.

Who scored the fifth goal that memorable night? Defensive rock Fonte of course.

Lille have lost just once since the beginning of January and with two games left they are guaranteed at least a Champions League play-off.

They will likely lose Pepe to a European giant this summer and surely Fonte can’t keep playing 30+ games a season at 36, but nonetheless Galtier should take all the plaudits from taking Lille from relegation fodder to Europe’s top competition.


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