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Resurgent Lens set for Champions League comeback

PARIS (AFP) – Lens will not beat Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) to the title, but this Ligue 1 season will be best remembered for the exceptional performances of the northern club who are set to qualify for the Champions League.

The fact PSG have not yet officially sealed a ninth championship in 11 seasons going into the penultimate weekend is partly down to the Qatar-owned club’s difficulties in recent months.

However, it is also down to Lens, who have shattered their own points record for a season with two games remaining.

They host already-relegated Ajaccio today, when a win will see them reach 81 points, more than any other side that has finished as runners-up to Qatar-era PSG. Mathematically, they could still win a first championship since their sole title to date in 1998, but a six-point deficit to PSG plus a far inferior goal difference makes that prospect unrealistic.

Nobody in Lens will be disappointed at coming second, and a five-point lead over third-placed Marseille means they will be guaranteed that – and a Champions League group-stage spot – by beating Ajaccio.

“We must not forget that we have not yet qualified for the Champions League. The last step is always the hardest one,” warned stalwart forward Florian Sotoca on Thursday.

The Champions League is a level Lens last graced two decades ago. In 2002/03 they held Bayern Munich and beat AC Milan.

Returning to that stage would be an extraordinary achievement for a club who spent most of the last decade in Ligue 2 before winning promotion in 2020.

It is, however, no less than they deserve for the work done on a modest budget of a reported EUR62 million (USD66 million).

The club from an old mining community in France’s far north – where the 38,000-capacity of their Stade Bollaert-Delelis is greater than the population of the town itself – has been well run under the presidency of financier Joseph Oughourlian.

On the pitch, they have recruited wisely and manager Franck Haise has built an outstanding team out of a squad lacking in superstars.

Lens’ supporters at Stade du Moustoir in Lorient. PHOTO: AFP
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