After finishing last season as runners-up in the French championship, Lille Olympic Sporting Club (LOSC) have embarked upon this year's Champions League campaign with a healthy blend of humility and ambition, three years on from their only previous participation.
"We really are the minnows of Group D compared with famous teams like Manchester United and Benfica and an ambitious side like Villareal. In terms of the quality of their players, these three teams are all a class above us, but we've already proven that if we can maintain the same team ethic as last year, we can compete with any side as equals," considered Lille general manager Claude Puel at the start of his assault on Europe.
Aged 44 and with 49 European appearances for Monaco and 27 as a coach already under his belt, the Lille technician has garnered solid experience on pitches all over the old continent. Consequently, Lille are not journeying completely into the unknown. The first task facing Puel, whose European experience as a manager dates back to 16 September 1999, was to try to free his players from the shackles of any inferiority complexes by emphasising that they have everything to gain from this adventure. "Since the top French players have started playing for foreign clubs, French football has come on leaps and bounds. Before, we weren't equipped psychologically, but over the last few seasons, we have shaken off many of our complexes," assesses Puel.
"The players don't need any motivating for this type of match. The high stakes and the prestige of the opposition are incentive enough. In any case, we're taking these games one at a time, an approach which certainly didn't do us any harm in the domestic championship last year," he explains.
Despite the massive financial bounty which the Champions League represents, the club, although ambitious, is not about to start concluding "transfers worth several million euros." "It's an exceptional injection of cash but it's still only a one-off. Once again, we're not going to rush into anything, a policy that has served us well for several years now," underlines club chairman Michel Seydoux.
A unified team and a well-balanced changing room
Indeed, despite the influx of Champions League television money, the club has scarcely modified its squad at all and remains reliant on a youthful group of players. Two senior stars, Philippe Brunel and Christophe Landrin, have even left. For Claude Puel "the overiding aim is to preserve the team's unity, both in terms of salary and spirit. For me, the priority in terms of recruitment is players who contribute to this ethos". The three close-season acquisitions were chosen not only "for their technical attributes, but also because they have the right mentality," as "it's essential to maintain harmony in the dressing room."
In order to be able to rub shoulders with the greats, Lille have had to switch their home games to the Stade de France in Paris, as the club's usual Grimonprez-Jooris ground, which is open to the elements in numerous places and poorly suited to football, does not comply with Champions League standards. "In Lille, people have failed to realise how big football could be and what it could contribute to a large city," laments Puel. Meanwhile the northern outfit's accountants estimate that the losses are currently running at around one million euros per month.
For their previous Champions League foray during the 2001-02 season, Lille were exiled to the Stade Félix-Bollaert, home of their great local rivals Lens. A comfortable win over the Greeks of Olympiakos (3-1) and two draws (both 1-1) against Deportivo and, interestingly, Manchester United, were not enough to get past the first round. So far this season, Lille have succumbed in stoppage time to Benfica in Lisbon (1-0) and then been held to a draw at the Stade de France by Villareal (0-0), before securing their courageous draw at Old Trafford (0-0)
"We'll remain a small club until we are given the resources to grow. But it's amazing the way this competition brings players on and we're not setting ourselves any limits," reveals Claude Puel, whose mantra to his players is "to keep learning while getting results."
Lille fact file
Official name: Lille Olympique Sporting Club
Position in French Championship 2004-2005: 2nd with 67 points
Chairman: Michel Seydoux
General Manager: Claude Puel
Name of Stadium: Lille-Métropole, at Villeneuve-d'Ascq
Capacity: 18,000 seats
Season ticket holders 2004-2005: 9,000
French Ligue 1 champions: 1946, 1954 - Runners-up 2005
French Ligue 2 champions: 1964, 1971, 1974, 1978, 2000
French Cup winners: 1946, 1947, 1948, 1953, 1955
Intertoto Cup winner: 2004
Intertoto Cup finalists: 2003
Sylva - Lichtsteiner, Tavlaridis, Schmitz, Tafforeau - Gygax, Dumont (c), Makoun, Barralon - Bodmer, Moussilou.