But Lille look like the first leaders this season who may actually stay on top; they could even win the league. Much will depend on their clash this weekend with resurgent Lyon, who look to have found form, having lost just once since October and are now four points behind Lille.
The Northern club’s success rests largely with the style and flair of Rudi Garcia, their Spanish coach, who has brought that country’s passing mentality with him to France. Lille play with creativity, style and pace. With a solid midfield marshalled by the athletic and powerful Rio Mavuba, it is the front three of Gervinho, Eden Hazard and the league’s top scorer Moussa Sow who have propelled the team forward. Hazard in particular has caught the eye, and he continues to be linked with some of the biggest teams in Europe due to his passing and imagination. But Gervinho has been a similarly impressive revelation, contributing a number of goals alongside Sow as Lille march forwards.
They have played with a style and swagger that has lead some to label them the Barcelona of France. With Mavuba, Yohan Cabaye and Florent Balmont in midfield, they have a triumvirate of small, yet technically gifted and athletic midfielders who can control games. With pace on the wings there are certainly similarities with the Catalans.
The club last weekend lost 1-0 to Montpellier, which ended a 13 match unbeaten run in Ligue 1. It meant that their lead was narrowed at the top to points by Stade Rennes, closely followed by Marseille, Lyon and PSG in a five way title race. Whether Les Dogues can mantain their push for the title remains to be seen, but they have a large squad, with the likes of Franck Beria, Ludovic Obraniak and Pierre-Alain Frau in reserve. But the club have not won the league for 57 years. But the team known for running out of steam towards the end of the season have added much needed depth to enable them to compete both in Ligue 1 and in Europe. But having been knocked out of the Europa League by PSV Eindhoven on Thursday, they have won just one of six games in all competitions.
Lille’s hopes will rest on a number of factors, but their hopes in Ligue 1 could improve without having to focus on the Europa League as the title race intensifies in the coming weeks. And they will need Gervinho and Hazard to stay fit and keep up their high standards for the rest of the season – a big ask for two such young, though gifted, talents.
It promises to be a testing few months for Garcia’s side. With the experience of champions Marseille and Lyon as well as the challenge of resurgent PSG and stubborn Rennes, it will be a title tussle that will test the nerve of the young Lille squad. Perhaps the biggest question mark is their ability to cope with the pressure that their rivals will inevitably place on them in the weeks ahead. The weekend clash with Lyon therefore, could tell us much about whether Les Dogues have what it takes to last the distance.