European Football: Lens aim to stay in sight

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The Independent Online
METZ and RC Lens, two small, unfashionable but fervently supported clubs will meet in a potential French league championship decider today. Only Olympique Marseille, three points behind Metz, the leaders, and two behind Lens, look capable of mounting a challenge with five games to go.

Metz have won the French Cup and the League Cup twice each but never the championship whereas Lens, known as the "blood and gold" because of their red and yellow colours, have never won a major trophy. They have been runners-up in the league three times - however the last occasion was 21 years ago.

Whatever the outcome of the title race, the likelihood is that Metz and Lens will follow in the footsteps of European Cup semi-finalists Monaco and Paris St Germain as France's representatives in the European Champions' League next season.

Understandably, the Metz and Lens players are angry at talk of a possible lowering of standards in the French game and suggestions that the pair are at the top because of the failings of the big guns such as Monaco and Paris St Germain, who are at present fifth and 10 points off the pace after taking only two points out of a possible 21.

"It annoys me to hear that we're here because the standard could be less high," Jean-Guy Wallemme the Lens captain, said. "It's an insult ... and suggests we're here by chance." The veteran defender Eric Sikora, in his 18th season with Lens, said: "The whole team have proved their worth on the field."

The Metz playmaker Frederic Meyrieu, sacked by Lens midway through last season, has wriggled out of a suspension and will face his former club in a match he did not want to miss. "Now I must try to concentrate on a match I didn't think I'd be playing in," Meyrieu said.

The gifted former Marseille playmaker, who won the Swiss league and Cup double with Sion last season, appealed against a third yellow card and automatic suspension he received against Marseille on 7 March. French league officials, to both Meyrieu's surprise and Lens' disgust, accepted the appeal and set a hearing for 9 April. "There are regulations established at the start of the competition. You don't change them five matches from the end," the Lens president, Gervais Martel, complained.

In today's other game, the France defender Laurent Blanc returns from injury for Olympic Marseille's visit to Cannes, who welcome back the Swiss forward Marco Grassi for a Cote d'Azur derby they must win as they bid to avoid relegation.