Preview: Lille OSC v FK Qabala – Europa League Qualifying
Opinions are mixed in Lille right now, fans are somewhat happy, apprehensive and some just plain confused. All that goes out the window on Thursday when the action turns to the pitch – not their normal pitch – as they take on Azerbaijani side FK Qabala in the first leg of their Europa League third round qualifying tie.
Due to the pitch at the Stade Pierre Mauroy being re-laid before the start of the Ligue 1 campaign, Thursday’s game will be played at the Stade Lille Metropole. That is the ground where LOSC won the league title in 2011 and should provide a decent atmosphere for a tricky fixture.
It will be far from easy for Frederic Antonetti’s side to progress, but they will and should start as favourites, even without some of their key players. A cloud currently hangs over the squad in the form of Sofiane Boufal. The Moroccan international is expected to leave, but his injury against FC Lorient last season has kept him out of pre-season so far and will see him miss competitive action until mid-September.
That has stopped clubs making serious enquiries and in the process stopped Lille from signing the likes of Nicolas De Preville from Stade de Reims and Red Star’s talented Naim Sliti. They did secure the signing of Younousse Sankharé from EA Guingamp on Monday, but he, along with Boufal, and Portugal’s new hero Éder, will miss the fixture. That in itself brings its own worries.
Antonetti will continue with the 4-3-3 that proved successful last season after Herve Renard’s unsuccessful formational tinkering during the first three months left them bimbling around the bottom half of the table. It took a while to bed in as the team were briefly in the relegation zone before Christmas, but a ten-game unbeaten streak in the home stretch (won eight, drew two) saw them pip St Etienne for fifth place on the final day. The defence is fine, no issues there. Marko Basa will partner Renato Civelli, with Sebastien Corchia on the right and new signing Julian Palmieri on the left. In the centre of the park, Morgan Amalfitano will play beside Rio Mavuba and Mounir Obbadi. Ahead of them will be the problem. L’Equipe on Wednesday predicted that Rony Lopes will play beside Ryan Mendes and Eric Bautheac in a very uninspiring LOSC front-line.
Qabala beat MTK of Hungary 2-1 in their away tie in the last round so will pose a threat – although that was their only away win in Europe in three seasons of trying. Georgian midfielder Nika Kvekveskiri scored the opener and Filip Ozobic followed up with a crucial second away goal in the second half. They were beaten 2-1 by Georgian side Samtredia in the first qualifying round, but that was offset by a 5-1 victory at home in the opening leg, featuring a hat-trick from Liberian international attacking midfielder Theo Weeks. They have been the third-best team in Azerbaijan for three seasons now and have experience at this level.
Last season, after beating Apollon Limassol and Panathinaikos in the qualifying and play-off rounds they finished fourth in a group containing Borussia Dortmund, PAOK and Russian side Krasnodar, picking up just one point on their travels as they got two goalless draws against PAOK. To give a level of insight into Qabala’s current level, they started with Bagaliy Dabo up front against the Hungarian side. He played for Creteil in Ligue 2 last term; they were relegated, he started 24 times and scored just four goals. He did however manage three assists for his new club over the two legs against MTK.
Lille should win, it may just be a case of them finding someone who can put the ball in the back of the net. In their last friendly, a 1-0 win over Belgian Division 1 side Waasland Beveren, that honour fell to Bautheac after 29 minutes, the former Nice man firing home a superb left-foot effort from outside the box. Earlier matches saw a 1-0 win over Dunkerque (National), and goalless draws against Ligue 2’s Red Star and more Belgian neighbours KV Ostende.
The defence will be solid – as always – the questions – as always – remain firmly over the quality in the final third.