Lens target Champions League as race for Europe heats up
As Paris Saint-Germain pull away towards another Ligue 1 title, the race for European places in France is taking shape with Lens bidding for a return to the Champions League for the first time in over two decades.
A stumbling run of form saw Lens win just once in seven games, but last weekend's 4-0 thrashing of Clermont pushed Franck Haise's side back into the top three at the expense of Monaco.
Lens have the chance to go six points clear of Monaco on Saturday when they host an Angers team who haven't won since September and are almost certainly destined for relegation.
But Haise, who has overseen Lens' remarkable transformation since leading the club back into the top flight in 2020, warned his players not to get complacent.
"Like I've said loads of times, there are rarely easy matches in Ligue 1," he said. "There is no room for relaxation."
"We're going to have to work hard to finish as high as possible," he added as Lens attempt to qualify for Europe's top club competition for the first time since 2002-03.
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"We need to give everything to have a better season than the others."
Monaco began the campaign as France's third Champions League representatives, alongside PSG and Marseille, but failed to make the group stage and dropped into the Europa League.
They were until recently the form team in the league post-World Cup before a 3-0 defeat by neighbours Nice late last month triggered a downward spiral.
After taking one point from their past three matches, Monaco will try to arrest their slide with victory at Ajaccio in Corsica on Sunday.
"Ajaccio are not an easy team to face, especially since they will be fighting for their survival in Ligue 1," said Monaco's Japanese international Takumi Minamino.
"We absolutely have to win this match if we want to continue dreaming of playing in the Champions League next season."
Marseille sit two points clear of Lens in second despite throwing away a two-goal lead in the final minutes against Strasbourg last weekend.
Rennes are not out of the top-three picture either but face a trip to PSG on Sunday, while Lille still have an outside shot at the podium as well.
Nice, yet to lose under their former midfielder Didier Digard, are the only French team left in Europe this season after PSG, Monaco, Nantes and Rennes all fell at the first knockout hurdle.
That string of exits has put France at risk of falling behind the Netherlands and losing a proposed third automatic Champions League qualifying berth for the revised 36-team competition starting in 2024-25.
One to watch: Jonathan David
The Canada striker has shot to the top of the scoring charts alongside Kylian Mbappe after netting seven times in his past five outings for Lille.
David bagged a hat-trick in the 3-3 draw with Lyon last time out and coach Paulo Fonseca believes there is more to come from the 23-year-old.
"I think he can improve his game in the box," said Fonseca, who will hope David keeps his fine run going with seven of Lille's final 11 opponents in the bottom half of the table.
18 - Tito Vilanova's record for the longest unbeaten start to a coaching career this century in one of Europe's top leagues. Reims coach Will Still can equal the mark Vilanova set with Barcelona in 2012-13 by avoiding defeat against Marseille.
19 - games without a win for Angers, who have picked up just two points in that time and are 13 from safety.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Lyon v Nantes (2000)
Toulouse v Lille (1600), Lens v Angers (2000)
Ajaccio v Monaco (1200), Montpellier v Clermont, Nice v Lorient, Strasbourg v Auxerre, Troyes v Brest (all 1400), Paris Saint-Germain v Rennes (1605), Reims v Marseille (1945)