First Ligue 1 club to field six under-21s
28 October ~ The starting line-up that Lens named at Toulouse in Ligue 1 last Friday night contained four 19-year-olds and two 20-year-olds. By doing so, the Sang et Or (blood and golds) became the first Ligue 1 club to field half-a-dozen players aged under 21 since Montpellier in 2003. Lens’ youth and inexperience made their 2-0 victory all the more impressive. In goal, Valentin Belon (19) was making his first-team debut. Six-foot-six-inch central defender Abdoul Ba (20) was making his first start. So was centre-forward Baptiste Guillaume, whose build and gait occasionally recall Tony Cascarino in his 1980s Millwall pomp.
Right-back Dimitri Cavare (19) might be a France Under-20s international but has played under ten games for Lens. In contrast, midfield pair Wylan Cyprien (19) and Benjamin Bourigeaud (19) were virtual veterans – they have made 79 first-team appearances between them, as they were regular members of Lens’ Ligue 2 promotion-winning side last season.
The visitors were lucky to win 2-0 – they scored from their only two shots on target and the inaccuracy of Toulouse’s attacking play was as big a factor as Lens’ defensive solidity in the victory – but nevertheless it was an eye-catching result. Local daily paper La Voix du Nord awarded seven out of ten ratings to Belon, Ba and Bourigeaud in their Monday-morning sports supplement. Alharbi El Jadeyaoui – who once had a trial at Arsenal and is one of Lens’ senior pros – described the squad as a “bunch of pals”.
Lens have one of France’s most esteemed youth systems – the club has produced France internationals Raphaël Varane and Geoffrey Kondogbia over the past five years – but fielding such an inexperienced team was a necessity rather than choice. Lens were banned from buying new players during the summer transfer window because Azerbaijani owner Hafiz Mammadov’s money appears to have dried up. There were promises funds would be put in following promotion last May but it never happened. At one point it seemed Lens would be forcibly relegated back to Ligue 2.
So Lens went into the new season with exactly the same squad as last term, minus six players. The biggest loss was Alphonse Areola. Voted 2013-14’s Ligue 2 Goalkeeper of the Year, Areola wanted to extend his loan stay from PSG for a further year. But the uncertainty got to him, so he joined Bastia instead. A seventh player, centre-back Alaeddine Yahia, has since moved on.
Five players were out through injury or suspension on Friday night so coach Antoine Kombouaré had no choice but to play the kids. The win was a fillip, lifting Lens out of the relegation zone, but the confusion continues. Mammadov – who came close to a takeover of Sheffield Wednesday last summer – is an elusive figure. Lens’ beleaguered president Gervais Martel was due to meet Mammadov in Baku last week but the trip didn’t happen, with no explanation given.
It’s no longer a case of when the money arrives, but if. Some are beginning to question whether Lens will make it to the end of the season. In the meantime, their patched-up team will carry on. Friday night was the first time we’ve seen six under-21 players in Lens’ starting line-up; it may not be the last. James Eastham