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  • By Alessandro Schiavone in Lens

Lens labour to victory over Toulouse but have to do this to see off superior Arsenal


By Alessandro Schiavone at Stade Bollaert-Delelis, Lens

Lens 2-1 Toulouse

Bottom-of-the-table Lens hosted reigning Coupe De France winners Toulouse at Stade De Bollaert nine days before welcoming Arsenal. And at the seventh attempt they finally won their first game of the 2023/24 season as Toulouse return to the South of France with a 2-1 defeat to deal with. The Sang et Or, with a litany of problems on and off the pitch, went behind to Gelabert’s dinked finish before Wesley Said restored parity by using all his wit to deceive Toulouse’s static backline in first-half injury-time. Late on Guilavogui scored the winning goal to send the fans into a frenzy.

In a pretty much one-sided first half, les Lensois were not enjoying the fruits of their labours as no fewer than two crossbars were hit. Adrien Thomasson and Ruben Aguilar both came close to giving Arsenal’s next Champions League opponents the lead yet luck was not on their side in the final third.


It was tempting to wonder how long it would take for Toulouse to cut the disjointed Lens rear-guard of these days open. The answer is at the very first time of asking, which sums up the current state of affairs at Stade Bollaert. Manager Franck Haize’s message doesn’t seem to be going through to his players as it once used to do. Hence Cesar Gelabert chipped last year’s Coupe de France winners in front when allowed to charge forward undisturbed before picking his spot with only Brice Samba to beat. The French keeper has known better days having shipped already 13 goals in seven games across all competitions. Too many for someone of his ability, especially after last season’s meteoric rise and his status as France's new back-up keeper a lot more is expected. It's true that a shot stopper is only as good as his defence but Samba cocked up one time too many and is also responsible for Lens' demise.


There seemed to be no end in sight for Lens’ early season lull until, out of nowhere, Wesley Said slotted an ice-cool finish past Toulouse’s stopper in the dying minutes of the first period. A goal that turned the mood from churning tension to visceral relief and gave Lens renewed hope heading into the second period. And on the teams’ return from the dressing room, Lens looked reinvigorated. But Said saw his low attempt saved after a Thomasson cutback. Yet up stepped Morgan Guilavogui six minutes from time to give Lens their first win of the season at last. 


The victory was anything but convincing though as Haise'd men made a very average side like Toulouse look decent. The way they deal with their strong moments [or “moments forts” as they famously call it in France] should be handled better as Lens fail to translate their dominance into goals and their superiority into a lead. And for a side with big ambitions they waste too many chances. Equally, their ”moments faibles” [weak moments] are filled with sloppiness, avoidable mistakes and conceded goals.


To have any sort of chance of beating Arsenal, Lens will need to take the few chances they get, keep it extremely tight at the back, transition fast and keep the distances between the four departments as tight as possible. Yet unless key players Brice Samba, Andy Diouf and Elye Wahi show the best versions of themselves, they won’t do it and there’s likely ever going to be only one outcome. Through on goal, the new club record £30million arrival from Montpellier Wahi ran rings around the visitors’ defence but failed to apply the finishing touch late on. He did the hardest part very well, turning a Toulouse defender inside out before firing over. And when he did score in injury-time, he was in an illegal position and the goal was chalked off. The replay showed us that he could have timed his run better. He may not even get one clear-cut chance like that against the Gunners, let alone two. He is one of the most exciting French prospects and has the quality to pose a major threat to any side, which includes the North Londoners. But he has to rediscover his golden Montpellier finishing touch of last season as soon as possible to trouble David Raya, William Saliba and company.

That said, Lens’ league position still makes for a grim viewing as the northern French are 16th. But getting a win under their belts will do them a world of good ahead of their trip to Strasbourg and their first meeting with Arsenal since 1998.

All things considered for last year's Ligue 1 runners-up this season was always going to be much harder than the previous one, both on a psychological and technical levels. When a small team has success very often it gets picked apart and there are several factors involved in their current blip such as losing star players like Seko Fofana and Loïs Openda. While the the new arrivals like Andy Diouf, Stijn Spierings and Wahi himself are taking their time to adjust to their new surroundings. Added to that, the club is challenging on an energy-sapping three fronts for the first time in 21 years. But that will surely not prove to be an issue for the raucous Bollaert crowd. They have been and will continue to be the squad’s best ally and their best bet of getting over the line, whatever the opposition’s name.

Yet only time will tell us whether their renowned 12th man will guide them to a shock win over Arsenal in a week. If they do just that, their season will officially be kickstarted and anything will be possible. 


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