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Lens in focus after fine start to French season

Lens might lack the glamour of Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille, but they have muscled in between France’s biggest clubs at the top of Ligue 1 after an outstanding start to the season and hopes are high that they could even mount a lasting challenge for Champions League qualification.

This season marks two decades since Lens and their blood and gold shirts were last spotted in Europe’s elite club competition, when they defeated AC Milan and drew twice with Bayern Munich.

Not long before that, in 1998, they won the French title for the only time in their history and the next season they beat Arsenal at Wembley.

Yet a long period of decline soon set in, and Lens had spent most of the last decade in the second division before returning to Ligue 1 in 2020.

They have since enjoyed two seventh-place finishes, and their current form has raised hopes they can improve on that despite selling several key players in the close season.

Lens lost French international wing-back Jonathan Clauss to Marseille and sold Malian midfielder Cheick Doucoure to Crystal Palace, while young striker Arnaud Kalimuendo returned to PSG after a successful loan.

Nevertheless, Lens have matched their best ever start to a top-flight season with Wednesday’s 5-2 win over Lorient leaving them level with PSG and Marseille on 13 points from five games.

They are unbeaten in 13 outings since March under coach Franck Haise, whose career was unremarkable before he took charge of the team early in 2020.

Key to their success has been skipper Seko Fofana, a marauding midfielder once at Manchester City and who was recently linked to Paris Saint-Germain.

Yet on Wednesday he penned a contract extension to 2025, with the signing happening on the pitch before delighted supporters after their game against Lorient.

“When I came here, the project was all about consolidating and growing the club,” Ivory Coast international Fofana, 27, said.

“This season I think we can do something bigger than that.”

Qualification for Europe would be a remarkable success for Lens, a club that began with a team comprised mainly of Polish immigrants who came to work in the local coal mines.

Those mines are no more but the football team unites the community — indeed the entire population of Lens can fit inside the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, which holds almost 38,000.

They have nearly 30,000 season-ticket holders and one of the best atmospheres in Europe, all of which helped persuade the outstanding Fofana to stay.

“When everything is going so well I see no reason to move. I don’t think I have finished writing my story here,” said Fofana. Lens play Reims this weekend.

Player to watch: Alban Lafont

The goalkeeper, 23, is the captain of a Nantes side who will hope to pull off a shock result when they host PSG on Saturday. While the Canaries lost 4-0 to PSG in the campaign-opening Champions Trophy in July, they beat the Qatar-owned side 3-1 at home last season.

Lafont was outstanding in that game, saving a Neymar penalty. Indeed he was superb throughout last season as Nantes won the French Cup. Born in Burkina Faso where his mother was a member of parliament, Lafont moved to France as a boy and has played for France up to Under-21 level. A call-up to Didier Deschamps’ full squad before the World Cup in Qatar cannot be ruled out.

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