Lens vs. Arsenal: The French Side’s Journey Since Their Last Champions League Encounter
Following their lone French title win, Lens faced Arsenal twice during the 1998-99 Champions League group phase. The matches ended in a 1-1 draw in France and a victory for Lens at Wembley, where Arsenal hosted their European home games at that time.
Their paths crossed once more in the subsequent season during the Uefa Cup semi-finals, with Arsenal prevailing 3-1 on aggregate to advance to the final, ultimately losing to Galatasaray.
Since then, Lens have played once in the Champions League, going out in the first of two group stages the competition had in 2002-03, and have been relegated and promoted three times since, not always exclusively for on-the-pitch activities.
But they have fought their way back, most recently in 2020, and actually challenged Paris St-Germain for the Ligue 1 title last season, making the most of a squad put together with limited resources.
Some of their stars previously played for Nottingham Forest, Southampton and Fulham – with one coming through the MK Dons academy.
“Since 2020, the club has put in one great performance after another, with its finances stabilised thanks to its president Joseph Oughourlian,” says Sandrine Arrestier, a journalist for regional newspaper La Voix du Nord.
“This season’s budget is 118m euros (£102m), and the club has the eighth-highest wage bill in Ligue 1.
“Lens have achieved this with unknown or little-known players, some of whom have come from the second division or abroad.
“The 3-4-2-1 is the trademark of coach Franck Haise with the principles of playing forward, pressing high and intensity.”
The good times felt a mile away when Lens were yo-yoing between Ligues 1 and 2.
In 2007-08, their most recent season in Europe, they started with a legendary manager in charge and ended it with relegation.
That summer they had coaxed Guy Roux, who had been in charge of Auxerre for a record-breaking 44 years from 1961 until his exit in 2005, out of retirement.
The then 68-year-old resigned after just four games, and no wins, admitting: “I felt that I had lost the impetus that helps coaches make players better at the highest level. It’s humiliating to acknowledge this, but I hope that my honesty will be acknowledged as well.”
He never managed again, leaving his managerial record as about 2,000 games for Auxerre and four games for Lens.
Lens would bounce straight back as Ligue 2 champions in 2009, but two years later were relegated again.
In 2014 they were promoted again… sort of, eventually.
They finished second in Ligue 2 but were blocked from promotion for financial reasons. After several appeals, and with manager Antoine Kombouare not training the team until their fate was confirmed, they were eventually allowed in Ligue 1 less than two weeks before the season started.
But it got even messier a few months later. Sochaux, who had been relegated as a result, did not give it up and in January a court ruled Lens would be relegated back to Ligue 2 at the end of the 2014-15 season no matter where they finished.
“Sochaux make me laugh,” said Kombouare. “They were relegated because they were bad.”
In the end Lens – who played some of their home games at the Stade de France more than 100 miles away as their ground was being readied for Euro 2016 – made it easy for everyone. They finished bottom of the table and were relegated on their own terms.
After five seasons in Ligue 2 – which included falling short in a six-way final-day title race and losing a play-off final – they were promoted again, but not in a way anybody could have expected.
They were second in the table, one point above Ajaccio, with 10 games to go when the Covid pandemic hit. The season was never finished with the French authorities declaring the final table as it stood, and Lens were promoted.
Haise had only been in charge for two games at that stage, having been named as manager on 25 February 2020.
They won both of those games. If they had dropped points in either, they would have missed out on promotion.
And he has continued to have the Midas touch since, taking them to seventh, seventh and then second – just one point behind Paris St-Germain. Their total of 84 points was the second-highest for any team who did not win the league.
After a 3-0 win over Ajaccio on 27 May to seal only their third Champions League campaign, the tournament’s famous anthem was played to the Stade Bollaert-Delelis faithful as fireworks lit the Lens sky.
Through all their lows, Lens never lost their loyal supporters – with more fans than residents.
French journalist Arrestier said: “Above all, they are a very popular club, rooted in the Pas-de-Calais coalfield. The population of Lens is about 33,000 while they have 30,000 season-ticket holders, with 15,000 on the waiting list.”
And on the pitch?
Lens had four players – most unheralded before their arrival – in last season’s Ligue 1 team of the season.
They were former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba, ex-Southampton defender Kevin Danso – who came through the MK Dons academy – former Fulham loan midfielder Seko Fofana and Belgium forward Lois Openda.
However Lens’ financial status is best demonstrated by the fact that arguably their two most important players have gone. Openda, their top scorer with 18 goals, went to Leipzig and captain Fofana, their next highest scorer with eight, left for Al-Nassr.
Without them, they failed to win in their first six games in all competitions – but come into the Arsenal game on the back of Ligue 1 wins against Toulouse and Strasbourg.
Ahead of their Champions League comeback, which featured a 1-1 draw against Sevilla on September 20th, Haise expressed, “Just three years ago, this club was competing in Ligue 2. While we’ve faced challenges this season and are diligently working to enhance our performance, it would be unwise not to savor this moment. I’m not inclined to make unwise choices.”