Pitchside Europe

Lille slow and steady as PSG rumble by


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Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the goals which gave new club PSG the win over title rivals Lille

When Lille coach Rudi Garcia turned to his bench in the second half of Sunday night's home game with Paris Saint-Germain, he was not exactly spoilt for choice.

Lille had trailed 2-1 to Zlatan Ibrahimović's second goal of the game since the 21st minute and although Salomon Kalou injected a dose of vim after being introduced at the interval, the hosts were no closer to finding an equaliser.

Túlio de Melo, a Brazilian striker with a ratio of 0.22 league goals per game in his Lille career, and Ryan Mendes, a 22-year-old Cape Verdean international freshly signed from Le Havre, both came on, but to no avail.

When Garcia's opposite number, Carlo Ancelotti, summoned reinforcements, the contrast was illustrative. Nenê, last season's joint-leading scorer in the French top flight and a nominee for the Player of the Season award, was called upon to replace Javier Pastore, before Jérémy Menez made way for Kévin Gameiro, the top-scoring Frenchman in Ligue 1 since 2009.

That's without even mentioning the injured Thiago Silva and Mohamed Sissoko, or the suspended Ezequiel Lavezzi (to name but three absentees).

There are 1,001 ways to highlight the gulf in resources between PSG and their domestic rivals, but the comparison with Lille is of particular interest because the 2011 champions were expected to mount the most enduring challenge to Ancelotti's men this season.

Montpellier will struggle to return to last season's heights and while Lyon and Marseille have made promising starts, both clubs are in transition and have thin squads that will feel the pinch of injuries and suspensions keenly.

Lille, though, appear to be on the up. Their brand new 50,000-seater stadium has helped them to attract high-quality players such as Kalou and Marvin Martin, while qualification for the Champions League group phase is expected to swell the club's carefully tended coffers by around £16 million.

Garcia has been eager to play down his side's chances - branding Lille "outsiders" in the title race and insisting that they won't be PSG's only rivals - but there are no teams better placed to mount a sustained challenge to the club from the capital.

Since Garcia arrived from Le Mans in 2008, Lille have consistently finished in the top five and their gradual progress bears testament to the clear-sighted long-term strategy put in place by club president Michel Seydoux, a French film producer who has been at the helm since April 2002.

Seydoux has overseen the inauguration of Lille's state-of-the-art Domaine de Luchin training base and has given successive coaches - first Claude Puel and now Garcia - sufficient time to move the team forward at a steady pace.

Much like Lyon during the previous decade, Lille are not afraid to sell their top stars at the right price, but players are never allowed to run their contracts down and leave the club for free. Newcastle United's failure to land Mathieu Debuchy this summer, meanwhile, demonstrates that Seydoux doesn't mind digging his heels in during transfer negotiations.

After the 2011 league and  French Cup double, Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye, Gervinho and Moussa Sow were all allowed to leave, but Les Dogues still managed to fulfil their objectives last season by finishing in the top three.

Eden Hazard has left for Chelsea but the £32 million transfer fee enabled Garcia to add further depth to his squad by bringing in Kalou, Martin, Mendes, young-full-back Djibril Sidibé and reserve goalkeeper Steeve Elana.

"We're kind of the French exception," says Seydoux. "But it's because we had a big sale. Hazard's departure was a big loss for Ligue 1 and for LOSC, but in order to remain ambitious and successful, we owe it to ourselves to reinvest some of the money."

Lille's well-balanced business model is the antithesis of PSG's compulsive cash-splashing and means that, more than any other leading French club, the northern side have little reason to fear the implementation of UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules.

Garcia blamed Sunday's loss at the Grand Stade on a lack of energy after a sapping sequence of six matches in three weeks, but defeat left Lille just a point behind PSG in the table after four games.

It may be only a matter of time before PSG come to dominate Ligue 1, but in the interests of healthy competition - and maybe even for the good of French football - Lille need to keep that gap as small as possible.

Based in Paris and working for Agence France-Presse, Tom Williams will be blogging for us on all matters Ligue 1 throughout the season.

Follow @tomwfootball

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