They missed out, narrowly. Two points separated Lille and Europa League qualification, only to be held to a draw at home by a side who had already gained their place the month before. Feelings of anguish, disappointment and hurt harkened over Grand Stade Lille Métropole. Ultimately, it was a matter of taking one’s chances against a disadvantaged opposition that would have gifted them the final ticket. It never came.
Lille’s players departed the pitch in solemn tones, some clapped the fans who had expected victory, and others’ heads gazed down at the turf they had just worked tirelessly on for more than ninety minutes. It failed to pay off and the fans recognised this with reciprocated applause.
“We can be proud of the fact that we found a winning formula of two points per game since December that not too many clubs can match” said Rudi Garcia, highlighting the positives in les Douges’ remarkable second-half start to their campaign.
“It’s never easy when integrating new players when the team has to be rebuilt every year. The aim is now to qualify for next year.” He has a point. Twice now Lille have had to depart with a few of their better players in exchange for large transfer sums which are then used to mould the squad into an even better shape in light of their permanent absentees. Gervinho, who is yet to rubberstamp a mark in England, transferred from the French side to Arsenal for a fee believed to be close to £11 million. The following season, Lille finished third; ten points ahead of trailing Lyon and a combined eight behind Paris Saint-Germain and Montpellier Hérault.
And it was only just last summer that Chelsea had inquired about the services of undoubtedly one of Europe’s most prized talents, Eden Hazard. In fact, that entire summer was dominated with speculation as to where the Belgian wide man would go and who he would sign for. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, with the outliers of Arsenal and Liverpool from time to time, were all frontrunners for his signature. It took until mid August of that summer for the 22-year-old to reveal on his official Twitter account that he is “signing for the champion’s [sic] league winner”. Chelsea.
That was a £32 million transfer, meaning that the duo totalled up to around £43 million, to which, since then, a supposed £45 million has been reinvested back into the squad. Dimitri Payet, arriving the season before – ironically from Saint-Étienne for £8 million – has arguably been the best signing of all, definitely this season. The left winger has had his best-ever season and set Ligue 1 alight with his twelve goals and thirteen assists in little over 38 games. The Réunionese winger isn’t likely to leave this season; however, his scintillating year will put the rest of the league clubs on full alert.
Although the expeditious spending has displayed increments of success, Garcia acknowledges the need to be careful this pre-season. “There will be economic ramifications as a result of this year and we will have to see what we’re capable of” he said. “It’s up to the president to set up our goals for next year.”
Indeed. The club have only become recent tenants of their newly constructed Grand Stade Lille Métropole, a multi-use stadium capable of holding just under 50,200 people, leaving it to Michel Seydoux, Lille’s chairman, and co. to refinance the club into a strong position capable of both repaying loans for the stadium’s construction and remaining capable of meeting the aims of Europe. It makes the disappointment of missing out on both the Champions League and the Europa League all the more hard-hitting.
Departures may even be more imminent than some could have expected: Laurent Bonnart, the 33-year-old full back, is not expected to be handed a new contract by the club and therefore will leave on 30 June, Gianni Bruno also confirmed his desire to leave, whilst Aurélien Chedjou has already said his goodbyes to the Lille faithful, having signed for Galatasaray. A stalwart figure in the heart of the team’s defence, his presence will need to be quickly replaced. Rudi Garcia has also placed his loyalty down before speculation has circulated his future and ‘tension’ between him and Seydoux.
But no-one can assume that next season will not be a tougher campaign before. Although Garcia has reaffirmed himself as the manager of Lille next season, at the same time, his contract is said to be expiring. Málaga have resigned to the departure of Manuel Pellegrini to, speculatively, Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, and the 49-year-old is among their list of candidates to take over.
Chedjou wore his heart on his sleeve in his final game with LOSC. It hardly ended the way he would have wanted, and his six years with them was rather anti-climatic. He was among the players to have his head fixated to the ground as he walked, but did not forget to applaud the fans that had turned out for the game. Tears ran down his cheeks and his eyes bloodshot from the outpour of affection he has for the supporters who stood by him – and he to them – from when he was in France’s lower tiers. A very strong influence from the back.
Lille may not find another player like him, not for a while at least; Ligue 1 will not see anyone like him for some time either.