Friday, June 2, 2023

Champions League: Lille overcome rocky start to reach knockout phase; Sevilla, Wolfsburg knocked out

Lille OSC are celebrating a berth in the UEFA Champions League knockout phase after a thumping 3-1 win away at VfL Wolfsburg on Wednesday secured the top spot in Group G. Red Bull Salzburg, who beat Sevilla to ensure that the Spaniards dropped into the UEFA Europa League, finished second in the group and will also advance to the last 16.

Burak Yilmaz, Jonathan David and Angel Gomes did the damage at Volkswagen Arena as Jonathan Ikone laid on two goals in what might turn out to be his final continental outing with Les Dogues as the French champions completed an impressive second half of the group stage run.

Three games in, LOSC had drawn twice and lost once to be staring total elimination in the face before an unexpected 2-1 win away at Sevilla was followed up by a 1-0 victory at home to Salzburg, which paved the way for their convincing success in Germany.

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Not even a late Renato Steffen effort could wipe the shine from a memorable European night for Jocelyn Gourvennec’s men as they sent Die Wolfe packing. Sevilla, meanwhile, will have the chance to add to their UEL haul on home soil with Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan hosting this edition’s final.

“We try to make history each time we play,” David said post-match. “Our strength is our collective.” This was echoed by Ikone who also declared after full-time: “we did not give up — there is a real collective strength.”

Lille’s onward march is not only about their ability to turn their UCL results around, though, as their upturn in form dates to November when this eight-game unbeaten streak across all competitions began. Lille have won five times in that stretch, with three of those on the road.

Les Dogues have also won away at Stade Rennais during that time and although draws against the likes of Angers SCO and FC Nantes have not exactly wowed, they have stopped the rot and a point away at AS Monaco was also a respectable haul as Le Championnat goes.

With just three points between Lille in 11th and OGC Nice in fourth and with David, the Canadian hotshot, leading the scoring charts with 11 goals already this season, it feels like better times might be around the bend for the French titleholders.

There is still a tricky financial situation to navigate but with the numbers more favorable than they were this time last year when now Girondins de Bordeaux president Gerard Lopez was forcibly replaced. Things are on their way back toward being more sustainable.

Whether Ikone is the only major departure this winter remains to be seen with Fiorentina poised to land the Frenchman in a deal which will see formative club Paris Saint-Germain profit through a future transfer clause in his deal. But the likes of Renato Sanches and Sven Botman are also wanted. Ikone alone might now suffice due to the financial windfall of advancing top of the group with PSG also representing France in the latter stages.

For Salzburg, they have made history as the first Austrian team to reach the knockout phase while Sevilla know that they will prove tough to beat as they drop into the Europa League, which they have won an incredible six times.

However, as for Wolfsburg, it is arguably a much-needed return to focusing on the Bundesliga with Europe and the DFB Pokal already gone for this season and stability required after the turbulent replacement of Mark Van Bommel by Florian Kohfeldt. Group G kept things exciting right up until the end and delivered the drama we hoped for from a group which could have seen anybody advance heading into the final 90 minutes of play.

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