France may conjure up a title race in 2023

IN THE SMALL city of Lens there was rejoicing on New Year’s Day – RC Lens beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 to close the gap at the top of Ligue 1 to four points. It was PSG’s first defeat of the season in the league and underlined the impressive run by Les Sang et Or in 2022-23, whose 40 points is the best performance by a second-placed team at this stage of the season since 1959.

PSG were stunned, but they were without Neymar and Lionel Messi. Nevertheless, PSG’s owners won’t be impressed that their team was swept aside by opponents who have a playing budget that is but a tiny fraction of the Paris wage bill. Coach Christoph Galtier refused to blame the absence of two of his star men for the defeat, admitting that Lens deserved their win. “Athletically, we were dominated,” he said after the game.

PSG may have been suffering from a post-World Cup hangover. Messi was on extended leave, Neymar was suspended after being sent-off against Strasbourg and Kylian Mbappé had reasons for being subdued after losing the World Cup final despite scoring a hat-trick. PSG made hard work of their December 28 game against Strasbourg, relying on a 96th minute penalty to win 2-1. Before meeting PSG, Lens had a 100% home record and had lost just once, a 1-0 Derby du Nord defeat at the hands of Lille.


Franck Haiser’s side adopted an aggressive style, pressing constantly and placing PSG under constant pressure. It says a lot about the lack of competitiveness in Ligue 1 that PSG have rarely faced such tenacious opponents in domestic football in recent years. Lens took an early lead but within three minutes, it was 1-1, but goals in the 28th and 48th minutes gave them a shock 3-1 victory. It was PSG’s first defeat since March 2022, a run of 38 games.

But there’s still a long way to go, and over the last decade, there have been a few occasions when a French side looks up for a title battle, but inevitably, PSG have been too strong for anyone to keep pace with them. Only Monaco in 2017 and Lille in 2021 have managed to outperform the Parisians. Lens have one of the smallest wage bills in the division, so even mounting a challenge for part of the season would be something of an achievement.

That’s not to say Lens don’t have some interesting talent, notably Florian Sotoca, the experienced former Grenoble striker and Loïs Openda, the 22 year-old Belgian front man. And then there’s Austrian central defender Kevin Danso, who was excellent against PSG. Seko Fofana and Salis Abdul Samed also caught the eye against the Ligue 1 champions.

French football could do with an exciting second half of the campaign, especially after that heartbreaking World Cup final defeat in Qatar. Lens have shown they know how to get to PSG, but if Neymar and Messi had been in the team, it would probably have been a different outcome. It’s difficult to see the clubs immediately behind Lens – Marseille and Monaco – making much of a statement, but the result at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis will act as a form of inspiration. The transfer window is opening and that may be bad news for the rest of Ligue 1. PSG will undoubtedly be busy in the coming weeks. The question is, do Lens have what it takes to remain in contention?

UEFA Champions League Preview: Just four places available

THE final matchday of the group phase includes a few mini cup finals that will decide the remaining four places for the last 16. Group D is still wide open, with Marseille, Tottenham, Sporting and Frankfurt all in with a chance of qualification. Meanwhile, AC Milan are still looking to win through but their opponents Salzburg are also in the hunt. Shakhtar Donetsk and RB Leipzig are also effectively playing-off for a last 16 berth.

The group phase has seen a few big casualties this season; Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Juventus have fallen, undermining the belief that these clubs are fit for a European Super League. At the same time, some unlikely heroes have emerged. Benfica have had a tremendous campaign so far in what was a tough group on paper. Club Brugge have also flown the flag for Belgium very well.

The most in-form team in Europe has to be Napoli, who have not only performed well in the Champions League, but they have also lit-up Serie A with their prolific goalscoring.

All eyes will be on Group D, however, as two places are up for grabs. Marseille host Tottenham at a time when their early season form seems to be fading. They were unbeaten in their first nine Ligue 1 games, but since then, they have lost three and drawn one. The hopes they had of challenging PSG seem to be evaporating, and they are now in fifth place, 11 points behind the leaders.

Tottenham started the season well, but before beating Bournemouth 3-2 last weekend, they had lost two league games in a row. They are still in a good place, just five points worse off than Premier leaders Arsenal, but they don’t seem quite as confident as they were in August and September. In the Champions League, they haven’t won away yet, drawing with Frankfurt and losing in Lisbon.

Sporting Lisbon face Eintracht Frankfurt aware that a point will see them through to the next stage. Sporting have had a clumsy league season so far, losing four of their 11 games. In the Champions League, they won their first two games but since then have gained just one point from three games. They will be eager to avenge a three-goal hammering in Germany against Sporting at the start of the group games.

Already through: Bayern Munich, Benfica, Borussia Dortmund, Chelsea, Club Brugge, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Manchester City, Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, Porto, Real Madrid.

Probables: Tottenham Hotspur, Sporting Lisbon, Shakhtar Donetsk, AC Milan.