Ligue 1: Lens targets Champions League as race for Europe heats up

As Paris Saint-Germain pulls away towards another Ligue 1 title, the race for European places in France is taking shape with Lens pushing for a return to the Champions League for the first time in over two decades.

A stumbling run of form saw Lens win just once in seven games, but last weekend's 4-0 thrashing of Clermont moved Coach Franck Haise's team back into the top three at the expense of Monaco. Lens has the chance to go six points ahead of Monaco on Saturday when it hosts an Angers team that has not won since September and is almost certainly destined for relegation. But Haise, who has overseen Lens' remarkable transformation since leading the club back into the top-flight in 2020, warned his players not to get complacent.

"Like I've said loads of times, there are rarely easy matches in Ligue 1," he said. "There is no room for relaxation." "We're going to have to work hard to finish as high as possible," Haise added as Lens attempts to qualify for Europe's top club competition for the first time since 2002-03.  "We need to give everything to have a better season than the others."

Monaco began the season as France's third Champions League representatives, alongside PSG and Marseille, but failed to make the group stage and dropped into the Europa League. Until recently, Monaco was the in-form team in the league post-World Cup before a 3-0 defeat by neighbor Nice late last month triggered a downward spiral. After taking one point from its past three matches, Monaco will try to stop its slide with a victory at Ajaccio on Sunday.

"Ajaccio is not an easy team to face, especially since it will be fighting for its survival in Ligue 1," Monaco's Japanese international, Takumi Minamino said. "We absolutely have to win this match if we want to continue dreaming of playing in the Champions League next season."

Marseille is two points clear of Lens in second despite throwing away a two-goal lead in the final minutes against Strasbourg last weekend. Rennes, which play at PSG on Sunday, is not out of the top-three picture either and Lille still has an outside shot at the podium.

Nice, yet to lose under former midfielder Didier Digard, is the only French team left in Europe this season after PSG, Monaco, Nantes and Rennes all fell at the first knockout hurdle. That string of exits has put France at risk of falling behind the Netherlands and losing a proposed third automatic Champions League qualifying berth for the revised 36-team competition starting in 2024-25.

Player to watch: Jonathan David

The Canadian striker has shot to the top of the scoring chart alongside Kylian Mbappe after scoring seven goals in his past five outings for Lille. David bagged a hat-trick in the 3-3 draw against Lyon last time out and manager Paulo Fonseca believes there is more to come from the 23-year-old, especially with seven of Lille's final 11 opponents in the bottom half of the standings. "I think he can improve his game in the box," Fonseca said.

Friday: Lyon vs Nantes
Saturday: Toulouse vs Lille, Lens vs Angers
Sunday: Ajaccio vs Monaco, Montpellier vs Clermont, Nice vs Lorient, Strasbourg vs Auxerre, Troyes vs Brest, Paris Saint-Germain vs Rennes, Reims vs Marseille

© Agence France-Presse

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