Lens begin to dream of Europe with World Cup on horizon


After surprisingly emerging as Paris Saint-Germain’s nearest challengers in Ligue 1 this season, Lens coach Franck Haise hopes his side can stay the course and compete for Champions League football.

Lens’ four-match winning run is their best in the top flight since the start of the 2001-02 campaign, when a defeat at Lyon on the final day saw their opponents crowned champions at their expense.

Following successive seventh-place finishes on their return to Ligue 1, Lens have turned the Stade Bollaert-Delelis into an impenetrable fortress this term with seven wins from seven.

They can cut PSG’s lead to two points on Saturday if they beat Clermont at home.

“We’re high up in the standings after 14 weeks, I hope we’ll be there as well at the end of the season,” Haise said following last Saturday’s 2-1 victory at Angers.

“Obviously when you have 33 points at this stage of the campaign, you can say that a European place is within reach.

“We’re going to do everything to improve our points total. Last year we needed five more. If we get those then we should be in Europe.”

Lens have conceded just twice in their past eight matches. Another win on Saturday would mark their best single-season run since they won seven in a row in 1998, the year they claimed their only Ligue 1 title.

Their last appearance in the Champions League came in 2002-03, when Lens beat eventual winners AC Milan in the group stage and drew with Bayern Munich.

“The group is very focused on our performances each weekend, we don’t look too far ahead,” Haise cautioned.

“There’s a lot of ambition in the squad but we know it all starts with hard work.”

With the opening game of the World Cup nine days away and most squads for Qatar named, the injury fear factor will be off the scale for players and coaches alike.

PSG coach Christophe Galtier played down concerns over Kylian Mbappe’s fitness last weekend after the France star came off late in their 2-1 win at Lorient.

“It is fatigue related to the succession of matches,” said Galtier.

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“It’s a very busy schedule, so there’s some apprehension. Everyone listens to their bodies in this pre-World Cup period. There can be a fear (of missing out).”

Lionel Messi missed the trip to Lorient due to an inflamed Achilles tendon, but the Argentine — heading to his fifth World Cup — is set to play some part against Auxerre on Sunday.

Player to watch: Youssouf Fofana

Injuries to Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante have left Didier Deschamps without his first-choice midfield pairing from France’s 2018 World Cup triumph.

Hoping to step up in their absence will be the likes of Youssouf Fofana, the 23-year-old Monaco midfielder who made his international debut in September.

Fofana has started for all but one game, which he missed through suspension, for Monaco this season.

He will be among three of the six home-based players in the France squad in action when Monaco host Marseille on Sunday, lining up on the opposite side from Matteo Guendouzi and Jordan Veretout.

Key stats

12 – Lyon boss Laurent Blanc has never lost against Nice during his coaching career. He has faced them 12 times before while in charge of Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain.

16 – Rennes are unbeaten in 16 matches in all competitions since a 2-1 loss at Lens in late August. They are third in Ligue 1 and will face Shakhtar Donetsk in the Europa League knockout round play-offs.

30 – PSG are undefeated against promoted teams going back to May 2010, a series of 30 matches. They have won 27 and drawn three in that time.

Fixtures (times GMT)

Friday

Lyon v Nice (2000)

Saturday

Lens v Clermont (1600), Rennes v Toulouse (2000)

Sunday

Paris Saint-Germain v Auxerre (1200), Brest v Troyes, Lille v Angers, Montpellier v Reims, Nantes v Ajaccio (all 1400), Strasbourg v Lorient (1605), Monaco v Marseille (1945)

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