April 24, 2024

Champions League return for passionate Ligue 1 underdogs RC Lens was 21 challenging years in the making

French chances of UEFA Champions League success live or die by Paris Saint-Germain of late and the capital club have suffered round of 16 exits in five of their last seven editions. Although the two exceptions to that general rule have been the 2020 final and the 2021 semifinals, it has been a desperately rough period for Ligue 1 clubs on the continent since both PSG and Olympique Lyonnais reached the final four in Portugal three years ago. Olympique de Marseille and Stade Rennais have had a tough time of it while Lille OSC did make it out of their group in 2022 before bowing out with Les Parisiens in the UCL round of 16.

Just two Championnat representatives in the groups has sadly become quite normal and it will once again be the case this season after one-time winners OM crashed out in the playoffs to Panathinaikos who failed to make the cut themselves. This edition is the turn of RC Lens to represent French soccer on the Champions League stage and although many people might be unfamiliar with them, it is actually a return for them after decades away from UEFA’s top club competition. Drawn in Group B along with Sevilla, Arsenal and PSV Eindhoven, les Sang et Or will be hoping to spring a surprise by making it out of their pool similarly to bitter northern rivals LOSC.

We take a look at the Ligue 1 club hoping to help PSG buck the trend as part of an improved French showing in Europe this year.

How Lens got here

Lens’ rise back to the summit of French soccer has been incredibly rapid with Franck Haise leading the popular club from the north to consecutive seventh-place finishes after the COVID-19-impacted 2019-20 season saw them promoted from Ligue 2 after nearly 10 years away from the topflight. Les Sang et Or then enjoyed a magnificent 2022-23 campaign which saw them finish just one point behind PSG to secure an improbable Champions League berth. Only Lens’ dramatic 1998 Ligue 1 title which they secured on goal difference can better their most recent Championnat showing and they will hope to return to being continental regulars in the next few years as their impressive rebuild continues.

This is a return, not a debut

Given Lens’ 1998 French title triumph, this season will not be a Champions League debut for the northerners although it is their first time back in European competition of any description since the 2007 UEFA Cup. They boast two UCL outings from 1998 and 2002 although arguably their most memorable showing came between the two appearances in 2000 when they reached the semifinals of the UEFA Cup. Intriguingly, Group B adversaries Arsenal have featured more than once on Lens’ historic travels with the two set to renew acquaintances 23 years on from their last meeting.

The two first met in the 1998 Champions League group stage which saw the Gunners held to a 1-1 draw in Lens and then beaten 1-0 at Wembley although a 3-1 loss to eventual semifinalists Dynamo Kiev put paid to Daniel Leclercq’s men and their hopes. Two years later, Arsenal and les Sang et Or met again in the UEFA Cup semifinals which saw Arsene Wenger’s side triumph 3-1 over two legs to reach the final which they would ultimately lose to Galatasaray on penalties. Another two years on in 2002 and Lens were back in the UCL where they went unbeaten against Bayern Munich home and away while beating both Deportivo La Coruna and Milan on famous European nights at Stade Bollaert only to finish four points behind both in their group.

Cult heroes

What makes this Lens story even more remarkable than simply one of French soccer’s historic names enjoying an overdue renaissance is how the club came to be recognized and respected as one of Ligue 1’s leading names. Unlike Paris and Marseille — two of the country’s biggest cities — or even Saint-Etienne which is another mining city to have produced one of the country’s leading soccer clubs, Lens is a small city in the Pas-de-Calais region which is among France’s poorest. The area has struggled since the 1980s when the last of the coal mines were closed down but les Sang et Or (Blood and Gold — referencing the mines) remains an immensely popular cult club in northern France and beyond.

Lens supporters are celebrated as some of the most dedicated in French soccer and the fact that Stade Bollaert Delelis’ total capacity is greater than the actual population of Lens itself speaks volumes as to the club’s importance. The fans’ rendition of Les Corons — an ode to the mines and mining community by Pierre Bachelet — is similar to Anfield’s emotive anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone and cannot be missed on big Champions League nights. Regardless of how Lens perform this edition, every single home game will be a major event for the club and its devoted fans and you can expect them to travel well to the likes of Arsenal, PSV and Sevilla to celebrate their triumphant return to Europe.

Underrated squad

Although Seko Fofana and Lois Openda were big losses this summer, there are still some quality elements in Franck Haise’s squad with some familiar faces too. Goalkeeper Brice Samba is now captain and a France international after leaving Nottingham Forest while Nampalys Mendy will be remembered by Leicester City supporters and Elye Wahi could have joined a number of Premier League clubs before Lens landed him from Montpellier HSC. Austria international defender Kevin Danso was wanted across Europe before extending his contract and Przemyslaw Frankowski enjoyed a spell in Major League Soccer with Chicago Fire before signing up for what has been a remarkable adventure so far for the Poland international.

Poor early season form

Transfer guru Florent Ghisolfi, whose expert eye for undervalued talent created a strong squad which Franck Haise was able to turn into a formidable outfit, has since joined OGC Nice and the early signs are that it will be tough to better last season’s sensational second-place finish. Lens come into this season’s Champions League in desperate form with just one point from their opening five games in Ligue 1 which is their worst-ever start to a campaign. However, while some would suggest that this European foray could be a distraction, it could also be a welcome release for Lens as they look to emerge from Group B in at least third place with Sevilla in similarly poor form which could raise hopes of at least a continued continental run in the UEFA Europa League.

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