How Far Can Rene Girard's Lille Go in Ligue 1?

Nicholas McGeeContributor INovember 6, 2013

LILLE, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 03: Lille supporters hold up flags during the French Ligue 1 match between OSC Lille and AS Monaco at the Grand Stade Metropole Villeneuve-d'Ascq on November 3, 2013 in Lille, France.  (Photo by Harry Engels/Getty Images)
Harry Engels/Getty Images

Almost all of the focus in Ligue 1 this season has been on the fortunes of Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco. 

As a result, the superb form of Lille had gone under the radar.

That was until last Sunday, when Rene Girard's men produced a fine performance to hand Monaco their first defeat of the campaign, two goals from Nolan Roux securing the points for Les Dogues.

The result leaves PSG in command of the title race, but it is Lille who now stand as the closest challengers.

Lille have recent title pedigree having won Ligue 1 in 2010-11, but their revitalization under Girard comes as a surprise after they parted company with a number of key assets.

The likes of Eden Hazard, Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Debuchy—who all helped Lille to their 2011 crown—had long since departed by the time Girard took the helm at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, but the former Montpellier manager's task was made harder by the departures of Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin.

Thauvin did not play a game for Lille before his acrimonious exit, but those losses, and that of defender Aurelien Chedjou, appear to have had little to no impact on Girard's side.

To the contrary, Lille's tight group of players have performed beyond expectations, with Girard getting the best out of a squad seemingly devoid of the quality needed to challenge the upper echelons of the division.

Roux is the most prominent example of a player who has blossomed under Girard, the former Brest striker scoring five goals in seven league appearances.

The 25-year-old appears to finally be harnessing the talent that was so apparent during his development at Brest, while former Chelsea man Salomon Kalou and promising attacker Ronny Rodelin are both beginning to produce strong showings.

Youngsters Soualiho Meite and Divock Origi have also broken into the first team as Girard utilizes almost all of his somewhat limited options. 

Making the most of his resources is something Girard is well experienced at from his time at Montpellier, where supremely talented playmakers Younes Belhanda and Remy Cabella were complemented by less-heralded players such as John Utaka and Souleymane Camara.

Girard and Montpellier went on to stun PSG in 2011-12 to lift their first league title against all the odds, but can the 59-year-old repeat the feat at Lille?

Much will depend on recruitment, Lille bolstered their defense with the signing of Simon Kjaer from Wolfsburg in the summer, but while the side possesses a strong spine, some extra depth is definitely required.

Girard did not receive much in the way of backing from Montpellier president Louis Nicollin during his spell at the Stade de la Mosson; however, in Michel Seydoux he has a boss who is eager to see his club—and all of the smaller sides in France—maintain a strong presence in the top flight.

Both Seydoux and Girard will be well aware of the need for new recruits in the January transfer window, but any desire to open the purse strings may be tempered by the proposed 75 percent tax on players earning over a €1 million per year, which French clubs are set to strike against on Nov. 29-Dec. 2.

Seydoux has been a vehement critic of the proposals, yet regardless of how the dispute ends, any business in the transfer window will need to be shrewd on Lille's part.

Transfer business aside, Girard will need his small squad to stay fit throughout the season, a feat that is rarely easy.

Montpellier's inspired title run contained a merited amount of luck; however, with two financial powerhouses in the mix, lightning seems unlikely to strike twice.

Still, Girard is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in Ligue 1, and if he can continue to motivate an exciting and tight-knit Lille side, then the northerners could at least ensure a return to the Champions League.