Record-breaking Lille creep into contention


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While Rudi Garcia has overseen Roma's record-breaking start to the Serie A season, the club he left behind have been enjoying a remarkable run of form themselves to creep into contention at the top of Ligue 1.

Roma fans may have been sceptical when they learned of Garcia's appointment in the summer, but his Lille team were a joy to watch throughout his five seasons in charge and the double-winning side of 2010-11, starring the likes of Eden Hazard, Gervinho, Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Debuchy, was certainly one for the hipsters.

The star names have moved on one by one over the last two years. Lille lost influential trio Aurélien Chedjou, Lucas Digne and Dimitri Payet over the summer and were damaged by the Florian Thauvin affair. Under new coach René Girard, this is supposed to be a season of transition, but it already looks like they could greatly exceed expectations.

Les Dogues (The Mastiffs) are not the free-flowing side of old. Girard has done away with the 4-3-3 formation that brought Garcia great success and introduced a diamond midfield, something which allows Nolan Roux and Salomon Kalou to play together up front and provides an extra layer of defensive solidity.

Friday's 1-0 win at Nantes that left them in third place was typical of the new Lille. They have won five and drawn one of their last six games, and have kept six consecutive clean sheets for the first time in Ligue 1. Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama has kept nine clean sheets altogether, more than anyone in the traditional 'Big Five' European leagues. Only Southampton and Garcia's Roma have let in fewer goals overall.

"The Northerners no longer have much in common with the flamboyant team that won the title in 2011, but today they find themselves at a comparable altitude," wrote Anthony Clément in L'Equipe after the defeat of fourth-placed Nantes.

Rather like Garcia in Rome, the appointment of Girard was not initially welcomed by many Lille fans, but this is the man who led Montpellier to the title in 2012, and the Lille board clearly saw him as the ideal choice to construct a new side in the far north of France.

Thauvin was supposed to be a central part of that team, but while he left for Marseille without ever having played for the club, others arrived in the summer feeling they had a point to prove and are flourishing, such as Danish central defender Simon Kjaer and Enyeama. "You ain't seen nothing yet," says Béria of the latter. "He is one of the best goalkeepers I have ever seen."

As a result, there is no longing for Garcia, and the change has done the whole club good. Balmont likes the fact that training sessions are longer and more intensive, while David Rozehnal has said that the arrival of Girard has been welcomed by those who were on the fringes last season.

"Rudi Garcia had his favourites but this season the coach has given everybody a chance. If you get the opportunity, you need to seize it. That has given the whole team a new-found energy," he says.

Girard's Montpellier team that won the title may be remembered for the attacking talents of Olivier Giroud and Younès Belhanda, but really their success was based on a defence that conceded just 34 goals. Now he is building Lille along the same lines.

"We need to make the most of times like these because they won't last forever," says the 59-year-old. "The football gods are on our side. At the beginning of the year, not many people thought we would be in this position. It's a bit early to say where we will be at the end but we will do as well as we possibly can. I get the impression that Paris are 20 points ahead of us, given how long people have been saying the title is theirs. But we will hang on in there for as long as possible."

After 11 games, Lille are two points behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco. It is their best start to a season since 2001 and has raised hopes of a push for a top-three finish and a return to the Champions League, especially with pre-season favourites like Marseille and Lyon struggling just now.

However, the toughest tests lie ahead, with a trip to PSG to come just before Christmas and a home clash with Monaco next Sunday. The prospect of seeing Radamel Falcao come up against this Lille defence is a fascinating one.

Andy Scott (Twitter: @andpscott)

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