The Bollaert stadium in Lens returns to the Champions League after twenty-one years of absence

RC Lens supporters have been waiting for this for twenty-one years: a Champions League match in their home, the Bollaert-Delelis stadium

The Bollaert stadium in Lens returns to the Champions League after twenty-one years of absence

RC Lens supporters have been waiting for this for twenty-one years: a Champions League match in their home, the Bollaert-Delelis stadium. Tuesday October 3, at 9 p.m., the Sang et Or will host Arsenal for their second meeting in the group stage of the most prestigious European cup. “This time is going to be fun. We feel a lot of pride in having brought this club back to this level,” said striker Florian Sotoca at a press conference on the eve of the meeting.

After an encouraging draw in Seville (1-1) and a clear recovery in Ligue 1, the Artesians want to confirm against the Londoners, big favorites in group B. Especially since the Gunners will not fail to bring back good memories for the Sang and Gold. In 1998, two months before the Blues' world title, RC Lens won its first – and only – French championship title, which opened the doors to the next Champions League.

At that time, Tony Vairelles sported a rather rock’n’roll mullet cut; that of midfielder Michaël Debève makes him look more like a Playmobil figurine. Beyond their hair fantasies, the two men share another point in common: they scored against the legendary English club during this continental campaign of 1998-1999 (1-1 in the first leg in France, September 16, 1998; victory 1-0 in England on November 25).

The Lensois finally finished second in their group, behind Dynamo kyiv of the great Andreï Chevchenko. The team is eliminated at a time when only the first of the six groups, as well as two best runners-up out of six, qualify directly for the quarters. “It’s our European epic (…), Wembley, Arsène Wenger, great French players, world champions, London, the supporters,” remembers Michaël Debève, interviewed by La Voix du Nord, who is delighted with the return of his former training at the highest European level: “Lens is a great club, a club apart in French football, it deserves to be in the spotlight. » During their second Champions League in 2002-2003, the Lensois ranked 3rd in an ultra-tough group behind AC Milan and La Coruna, but ahead of Bayern Munich.

Six years of absence for Arsenal

The French are not the only ones to reconnect with the prestigious competition. Their evening opponents had not used a crampon there since the 2016-2017 season; suffice to say an eternity for a club of this standing. And the men of Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal coach, took care of their comeback, with a crushing victory over PSV Eindhoven (4-0). Runners-up to Manchester City in the Premier League last season, the Gunners are once again off to a good start in the league: this weekend against Bournemouth (4-0), they signed their fifth victory in seven games and occupy second place in the standings at tied with Tottenham, one point behind the defending champions Mancuniens.

Above all, the Londoners remain the only undefeated team across the Channel, and they appear particularly comfortable away from home, with three victories away from their home venue, the Emirates Stadium, and no goals conceded. But Mikel Arteta is not coming to the north of France with all his might: “It will be a very difficult match away [against Lens],” admitted the Spanish technician.

Especially since, after a complicated start to the year – four defeats and a draw – the Sang et Or have found color again. Winners against Toulouse and Strasbourg in Ligue 1, Franck Haise's troops above all proved in Andalusia, on September 20, that they had the means to compete with the continental elite... And away from home!

The Artésiens can also rejoice at having – finally – seen their new striker Elye Wahi, 20, who arrived this summer from Montpellier for 30 million euros, open his goal tally on September 29, against Strasbourg. “With quality players you have to be demanding. He knows that he did one very important thing – score this goal which gives us the victory –, but I also know that there are other things on which he must be more efficient,” insisted Franck Haise after the match .

That day, the coach was delighted to find “a team that looks more like the one it should be”: “I don’t know if we’re back. In any case (…), there are things that are much more consistent over time. » Will this be enough against Arsenal? “Obviously it’s a big challenge,” admitted the Lensois coach at a pre-match press conference. “What is certain is that we will play these matches to win them. »