Lille have made it to the promised land of the UEFA Champions League three times in their history, the last of those occasions coming in the 2006/07 season, when they battled their way through to the last 16 of the competition for the first time.

Though Le LOSC have not been too far away from returning to Europe’s elite club competition in the meantime, they have never looked more likely to set that record straight than this season.

Having suffered only two defeats so far this campaign and scored 33 goals in 18 matches, Rudi Garcia’s side ended 2010 atop Ligue 1, the first time the club have been clear of the field at the midway point since 1949. What makes that achievement even more commendable is the fact that the northerners are playing a brand of attacking football that has made them the most watchable team in France.

To find out more about the secrets of their progress over the last few years, spoke to two of the club’s most valued players, midfielder Yohan Cabaye and the much-admired youngster Eden Hazard.

A Belgian jewel
“I couldn’t tell you if there’s a ‘Rudi Garcia method’,” ventures Hazard, the dynamic young Belgium international.  “The only thing I can say is that he’s brought a Spanish touch to Lille, which probably has a lot to do with his roots. Obviously I’m not trying to compare us to them, but we’re trying to draw some inspiration from Barça, an attack-minded team that likes to pass the ball.”

Garcia’s introduction of the 4-3-3 system embraced by Barcelona has worked wonders. With Côte d’Ivoire wide man Gervinho stationed on the left, Hazard working his magic down the right and French-born Senegalese striker Moussa Sow (the top scorer in Ligue 1 this season with 14 goals) leading the line, Garcia possesses probably the most formidable attack in the league. 

“We’ve been playing good football now for the last two or three years,” adds Hazard. “We haven’t really got our rewards yet but people want to come and see us play, and that’s something at least.”

Voted the best young player in Ligue 1 for the last two years, Hazard has grown accustomed to entertaining the fans. The 20-year-old Belgian has been impressing on every outing with Les Dogues, and his gift for dribbling and the ability to pick out a pass have had the experts drooling, among them one Zinedine Zidane. “He’s a star of the future,” Zizou has commented.

“To hear that from my hero makes me immensely happy,” Hazard tells us. “I still have so many things to prove, though.”

The same goes for his club. Despite ending last season with record tallies of 70 points and 72 goals, Lille agonisingly missed out on a Champions League place on the final day of the season, going down 2-1 at Lorient. It was the second time in three seasons that they had come up short at the very last.

Midfield industry
Despite their current lofty position, those recent experiences have made caution the watchword at Lille. A prize asset in the league leaders’ midfield unit, where he forms part of a so-called “magic triangle” with Florent Balmont and captain Rio Mavuba, Yohan Cabaye is nevertheless quietly confident this season will have a happier ending.

“Winning something with the club where I learned to play would be amazing,” says the man who made his France debut against Norway last August. “I’m convinced we can achieve something this time but we can’t afford to get worked up about it.”

“So far this season we haven’t made any of the silly little mistakes that cost us so dear last year,” he continues. “My feeling is that we’re more consistent now. It’s up to us to keep it that way because this is not over yet and we can’t afford to relax.”

Relaxation is something Lille have done little of since emerging from the doldrums in the late 1990s under Vahid Halilhodzic. A Ligue 2 side until 1998, Le LOSC shot to prominence under the Bosnian strategist, with Claude Puel continuing the good work between 2002 and 2008.

The 24-year-old Cabaye has spent his career at the Stade Lille-Metropole and has witnessed that development for himself. “I’m delighted to have seen just how far the club has come and how quickly it has done it,” explains the new France star. “I was born in the north and I came through the youth teams here at LOSC, getting over every hurdle I had in front of me. It’s been very pleasing. I’ve seen Lille drop into Ligue 2 and then come back up again and get into the Champions League. But if we’re going to get up there with the likes of Marseille and Lyon, we need to win a title.”

The big two were the only sides to inflict defeat on Lille in the first half of the campaign, though Cabaye refutes any suggestions of a hoodoo. “I don’t think we’ve got an inferiority complex with teams like them or that we’re not at their level,” he says. “We might not have taken any points from those games but we still did some good things. We’re going to build on them for the future and show that we’ve made progress and have got more experience now.”

“We haven’t won anything yet, though,” he concludes, anxious to dampen expectations. “We’ll get a bit more respect just as soon as we win something, but even so, we know that our reputation is growing both at home and abroad.” That reputation will take on an extra dimension should Lille maintain their course towards what be their first league title since the mid-1950s.