MONACO — When Lille won 1-0 at Paris Saint-Germain last month coach Christophe Galtier calmly walked into the visitors’ changing room at Parc des Princes. Then he sprinted and jumped on to a table before clenching his fists and letting out a victory cry. He may as well have planted a flag in conquered territory, for it was a decisive moment. Lille moved three points ahead that day and held on by one point Sunday to clinch a first French crown since 2011. That was the same year PSG was bought by by cash-rich Qatari investors QSI.
Here’s how Lille sealed its fourth championship and stopped PSG from winning a record-equaling 10th in the most exciting French title race for many years:
THE GALTIER EFFECT
With the looks of a crooner, Galtier’s debonair appearance belies a fierce inner steel. The 54-year-old Frenchman is a former rugged defender with Lille, Marseille and several other clubs in a journeyman’s career. As a coach, Galtier made the most of a talented but limited squad, blending youth and experience to good effect. He focused on defense first, building a rock-solid back line that kept a league-high 21 clean sheets and conceded a league-low 23 goals and three defeats. He also showed patience in persevering with 21-year-old Canada forward Jonathan David, who made a slow start but came good in the second half of the season.
Leader, warrior, inspiration. Take your pick as to which best describes veteran center half Jose Fonte. The 37-year-old captain drew on all of his experience, gleaned from nearly 180 games in the pressure cooker of the Premier League and 45 caps for Portugal, to keep his teammates focused. Fonte’s reading of the game is as impressive as ever. Behind him Mike Maignan emerged as the best goalkeeper in France along with PSG’s Keylor Navas. Maignan’s ability to read shots late, along with lightning reflexes, frustrated star forwards Kylian Mbappe and Neymar as Lille kept two clean sheets against PSG. Maignan also foiled many others.
Eyebrows were raised in some quarters when Galtier signed 35-year-old Burak Yilmaz from Besiktas. Surely the Turkey striker’s best days were behind him? Not so. He contributed 16 league goals in only 28 games, and would have surely reached 20 if not for a niggling mid-season injury. He came back just in time for Lille’s title run-in. As well as being a vocal presence, he scored key goals. Yilmaz netted twice and set up David in the 3-2 win away to Lyon — where Lille trailed 2-0 — and struck a fine goal against Nice. He then scored two more, including a stunning long-range strike, in a 3-0 win at Lens. Galtier paired Yilmaz with attacking midfielder Yusuf Yazici, his former teammate at Trabzonspor, and they combined well. Yazici also chipped in with a useful seven league goals and back-to-back Europa League hat tricks revealed his classy touch. David cost Lille €30 million ($36.5 million) and took until late November to score. Galtier said he should do better but also kept faith, and was rewarded by David’s 13 league goals. None was more crucial than the one he scored away to PSG. The other key signing was Dutch center half Sven Botman. The 21-year-old was a relative bargain at 8 million ($9.8 million) from Ajax and, after forming a superb partnership with Fonte, is now being chased by Europe’s biggest clubs.
Lille’s defense deservedly received a lot of credit, but holding midfielders Benjamin Andre and Boubakary Soumare provided the ideal protective screen. The 22-year-old Soumare is yet another player who came through PSG’s ranks but fell foul of the club’s habit of recruiting big names. Soumare hardly ever scores — just one goal in 82 league games for Lille — but his tough-tackling and tacitcal nous have complimented the dynamic Andre. At 30, Andre is in his prime years and has proved one of Galtier’s shrewdest signings two years ago, after more than 150 games for Rennes. Andre also blossomed in a leadership role as vice captain to Fonte.
WIDTH AND SPEED
Yilmaz is a typical center forward, but age and injury meant he couldn’t play every game. So Galtier had to find alternative ways to threaten up front using players who didn’t have the Turkish forward’s ability with his back to goal. Galtier did so with quick and skillful players using the width of the pitch. The Paris-born Jonathan Bamba, Jonanthan Ikone and Timothy Weah — the son of Liberia President and former Golden Ball winner George Weah — all chipped in with useful goals. Ikone grew up in Bondy, the same Paris suburb as Mbappe and they both played for the youth team. But Ikone was not kept on by PSG and left after a handful of games in 2018, one year after Soumare. Ikone’s electric running from deep has helped him break into the France team, while Weah is a U.S. international.
Galtier has one year left on his contract but is hugely sought after and has been heavily linked with a move to cash-rich Nice, which is owned by British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe. Lyon is also keen on Galtier as a replacement for Rudi Garcia but Nice appears the most likely destination for the likeable coach, whose long-term dream is to take charge of his hometown club Marseille. He left Lille with another accolade, winning the French league’s manager of the year award for the third time.
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