Lille's defense goes from best in French league to worst

·4 min read

PARIS — From having the best defense and most clean sheets in the French league, Lille has gone to leaking goals with alarming ease.

Lille conceded 23 goals in 38 games last season but has allowed seven in only two games this campaign — a 3-3 draw at Metz after trailing 3-1 and a crushing 4-0 home loss to Nice last Saturday, when the first goal came after just 55 seconds.

Nice's new coach is none other than Christophe Galtier, whose shrewd leadership helped Lille win the title last season on the back of a league-high 21 clean sheets and a league-low three defeats.

Lille coach Jocelyn Gourvennec clearly has things to sort out heading into Saturday's trip to face Saint-Etienne, coached by former Lille boss Claude Puel.

“We have to tighten things up quickly. We have to react,” Gourvennec said. “Seven goals in two games for a team that only conceded 23 is far too much. We must apologize to our fans.”

Club president Olivier Letang did just that, posting a message to supporters on Twitter.

“First of all, we are disappointed for them,” Letang said. “Secondly, they were incredible and encouraged us throughout the match. We obviously need to do much better for them, and very soon.”

To make matters more difficult for Gourvennec, he will be without star midfielder Renato Sanches for six weeks. The Portugal international had an operation on a minor right knee problem on Monday.

At least that means Sanches, who played well for Portugal at the European Championship, won't be sold during the summer transfer window.

Lille lost Galtier and sold standout goalkeeper Mike Maignan to AC Milan for 15 million euros ($17.5 million) during the offseason.

Even without Maignan, Lille has much the same defense. It is based around the solid center-back partnership of Portugal veteran Jose Fonte and 21-year-old Dutchman Sven Botman, who were both excellent last season.

But Maignan's replacement, Leo Jardim, is still getting to know them, and he does not have anything like Maignan's commanding presence in the penalty area. While Jardim has shown his shot-stopping ability in the first two matches, he has looked vulnerable on crosses and corners in both.

On Thursday, Lille signed Croatian goalkeeper Ivo Grbić from Atlético Madrid on a season-long loan with an option to buy.

Lille's defensive stability last season was not just because of the back four. There was also the strength of its central midfield, where the ball-playing Benjamin Andre and the physically imposing Boubakary Soumare provided an ideal protective screen.

The 22-year-old Soumare's transfer to Leicester in the Premier League for 20 million euros ($23.4 million) was another significant loss and this has affected Andre's performances.

CHEERS AND JEERS

There were unusual sights and sounds before Paris Saint-Germain's home game against Strasbourg last Saturday.

Fans cheered and chanted Lionel Messi's name as PSG's stunning summer signing was presented to them at Parc des Princes.

Then, sections of the crowd loudly jeered and whistled star striker Kylian Mbappe when his name was read out on the team lineup.

It appears that some fans are unhappy with Mbappe, who has yet to sign a new contract amid reports he could join Spanish giant Real Madrid.

“I didn't hear the whistles,” PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino said. “He is focused on what he needs to do and played very well. He must carry on like this.”

PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi struck a defiant tone during Messi's news conference last Wednesday, boldly saying Mbappe has “no excuses” to leave, such is the strength of PSG's squad after a summer of impressive recruiting.

But Mbappe wants to play in a team where the attack revolves around him.

With Neymar and now Messi at PSG, that seems unlikely to happen and a bid of 150 million euros ($175.5 million) from Madrid might be too good to refuse.

Mbappe’s contract runs out at the end of the season and he could leave for free.

A smiling Pochettino said at a news conference Thursday that he relies on his “sense of humor” to deal with transfer rumors, after being peppered with questions about Mbappe’s future.

The team goes for its third consecutive win when it faces Brest in northwestern France on Friday night but whether Messi makes his PSG debut there remained unknown.

“We have not given the squad list yet, we will do so shortly after this press conference,” Pochettino said Thursday. “We are still analyzing whether he will be in on the squad or not.”

The “massive challenge,” Pochettino said, is meshing the players' talents into a unified force.

“The most important (thing) is try to build the team that works all together united... work under the same philosophy and ideas,” he said. “We have unbelievable talent. We have an amazing squad. Now, all our efforts are in trying to be something special that gives us the possibility to win, that is most important.”

Jerome Pugmire, The Canadian Press

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