The Blaugrana of the North
Lille and Barcelona don't have too much in common. One is a cosmopolitan Mediterranean metropolis, the other an unremarkable Eurostar stop on the fast track from London to Paris. However, like Barcelona - and unlike Ashford in Kent, the other town rendered famous by the Channel Tunnel rail link - Lille have a football team the envy of the country.
"Lille are the best team we've played against," Nice coach Eric Roy said after seeing his team undone by the Ligue 1 leaders recently. "They're the team that have imposed themselves on the game the most. They remind me of a certain Spanish team that plays rather well."
The comparison is clearly a little exaggerated but, like Barca, Lille head their domestic table and, in a country that held its head in shame after averaging 1.7 goals per game last weekend - the lowest in Europe's top five leagues - the northerners have done it playing football to make the mouth water.
Lille have been successful before, notably under Vahid Halilhodzic and more recently Claude Puel, who led the team to a runners-up spot and a third-place finish as well as creditable Champions League displays during his reign at the club from 2002 to 2008. However, the teams fashioned by the effervescent Halilhodzic and the more prosaic Puel were equally pragmatic in style. Under Rudi Garcia, in place since Puel's departure, things have been different.
Fifth in a successful if not particularly spectacular first season, Garcia's side hit a league-high 72 goals last season in coming fourth. Lille have scored on 40 occasions already during the current campaign, five more times than the next most-potent side, to help ease themselves five points clear of the pack and give them more than a sniff of a first Ligue 1 title since 1954.
"If they don't f**k up, they'll be champions," Lyon's former Lille midfielder Michel Bastos said recently, while Puel - characteristically - was more measured if just as emphatic in comparing his Lyon squad to Garcia's. "We have to have the will to inspire fear - like Lille, who win matches through fear, as they did at Nice," he said.
The reason other Ligue 1 teams are quaking in their boots is Lille's 4-3-3 line-up with its irresistible spearhead of Gervinho, Moussa Sow and Lille's very own Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard.
Sadly, the 20-year-old Belgian has likely never even seen Bo and Luke Duke in action, but does probably boast a girlfriend to rival the comely Daisy as he is set to become one of world football's bona fide stars. Blessed with the fearsome acceleration of the General Lee and the dribbling ability of one of Daisy's now middle-aged admirers, Hazard can - and has, as he did at Nice - win games for Lille. "I would take him to Madrid without a second thought," Zinedine Zidane said in May 2009 when Hazard was just 18. Enough said.
Gervinho, who can be as creative as Hazard but provides more of a goal threat, has chipped in with ten strikes, while Sow has been the real surprise. Picked up from Rennes last summer after a promising season, the powerfully-built forward took his tally to a league-leading 16 with a brilliant overhead kick in last weekend's 1-1 draw at Auxerre. "They have three atomic rifles up front," Lens defender Alaeddine Yahia said after seeing his team beaten 1-0 in the northern derby recently. "And their midfield is the best in France."
The first-choice threesome across the middle is rather good, and slickly complementary. Yohan Cabaye provides technical quality, Rio Mavuba is the grit and graft in front of the back four, while Florent Balmont chips in with a bit of both. It is a combination that has worked superbly and allowed Lille to both dazzle, as they did in dismantling Lorient 6-3 before Christmas, and patiently grind out results, which they did to impressive effect against Lens, where they enjoyed a Barca-esque 63% possession but only mustered three shots on goal against well-organised opponents.
"We've proved we can play against teams that defend deep," Garcia said. "In terms of our play, we've progressed. Now, we're able to attack en bloc, even against teams that defend deep, and find a way through without exposing ourselves to counter-attacks." Sound familiar?
Defensively, they are sound too. Adil Rami, soon to be of Valencia, and Mathieu Debuchy are the outstanding members of the back four, behind which Mickael Landreau seems to have emerged from the darkness he was plunged into at Paris Saint-Germain. With Pierre-Alain Frau, Tulio de Melo and Poland international Ludovic Obraniak on the bench, Garcia has strength in depth bettered by only a select few in France. "When we've got a full squad, we know we've got assets on the bench," Garcia said, having seen almost a fifth of his team's goals supplied by substitutes after throwing men on and altering the formation to an all-or-nothing 4-2-1-3 with Hazard pulling the strings.
With everything he touches thus far turning to gold, it is hardly surprising Garcia feels secure enough to gamble on the pitch and, off it, he continues to play his cards close to his chest with his contract up next year and a two-year extension on the table as yet unsigned. It is a position of power that seems improbable given he was sacked after his first season in charge, only for club president Michel Seydoux to step in, sack director general Xavier Thuillot and then plead with Garcia to take the job back. Should he win the title, the 46-year-old, tipped by 1998 World Cup-winning coach Aime Jacquet as 'one to watch', will be able to name his price.
But will they win it? "The size of what's at stake, our lack of experience in picking up trophies, and injuries" were the three potential pitfalls Mavuba picked out for his side. But while only Landreau already knows what it is like to be French champion from his spell at Nantes, Garcia should perhaps be more concerned that his team have yet to beat any of the other sides currently in the top seven, and have lost to both Marseille and Lyon, respectively six and seven points adrift.
They now face a testing month: both OM and OL play Lille in a spell that also sees Garcia's side face a sapping two-leg Europa League confrontation with PSV Eindhoven. It was around this time last season that Les Dogues suffered a dip in form that cost them a Champions League qualifying place. If they can avoid that or at least limit the damage, they should get their chance to measure themselves against the Catalan Lille next season.