Football: The odd couple's meeting of minds

Champions' League: Wenger's established, big-city Arsenal take on the small-town, ambitious newcomers of Lens
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The Independent Online
TOMORROW NIGHT, the most French of British clubs will play the most British of French clubs in the Champions' League.

The meeting between Arsenal and Racing Club de Lens - the first game in the Champions' League for both clubs - is a whirlpool of cross-channel cultural influences. Arsenal have a French manager and five French players; Lens have a stadium which is a concrete-and-glass pastiche of Highbury. Arsenal fans who make the journey might feel more at home away in the Pas de Calais than they do when playing home European games away at Wembley.

The Lens supporters, the most noisy and emotional in France, incorporate the British flag in their red and yellow banners. No one can remember quite why but it seems to be an attempt to claim kinship with the Anglo- Saxon game, both in passion and style.

On the surface there are few other similarities between Arsenal and Racing Club de Lens. The Gunners are the wealthiest and most succesful club in one of the largest cities in the world. The Sang et Or (blood and golds) won the French championship last year for the first time. Lens, 50 miles from the Channel Tunnel, is smaller than Macclesfield or Stevenage. It has a population of 35,000. The Stade Felix Bollaert holds 42,000 people, 20 per cent more than the town which it dominates (alongside a couple of slag-heaps, left to commemorate the defunct local industry).

But these statistics are misleading. Lens, in French terms, are a big club, with the third highest average gates in the country and a catchment area of nearly two million people. The club's clever, abrasive president, Gervais Martel, 44, is a local free-newspaper millionaire. His ambition is to build Lens into one of the great European sides. He has hired the firm who built the Manchester United superstore to work the same merchandising miracle for Lens. The shop - L'Univers des Sang et Or - opened five weeks ago and has already had to increase its staff from four to 19.

Although weakened by injuries and close-season depredations, Racing Club will be no pushover tomorrow night. They have two of the best French players NOT to be included in the World Cup-winning squad: Tony Vairelles, a fast, tricky left-sided striker, and Frederic Dehu, a sweeper or defensive midfielder in the style of Emmanuel Petit. (Both have been picked for France squads since the World Cup.)

Racing also have a pacey, experienced and wily goal-scorer in the Czech international Vladimir Smicer, who is now paired up front with the powerful Pascal Nouma, a close-season signing from Strasbourg. But Vairelles is the great, local hero. Although nominally a left-winger, he often drifts into the penalty area to score powerful or opportunist goals. One whole section of the stadium at the Stade Felix Bollaert has been colonised by his fan club, who call themselves the "Tony Boys".

Lens, like Arsenal, have had an indifferent start to the season. They lie in eighth place after losing two league games in their first five (including by 2-0 at Monaco last Thursday when Nouma was sent off after only 22 minutes). They are sorely missing their long-serving captain, and central defender, Jean-Guy Wallemme, transferred to Coventry City, and their attacking midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe, still not recovered from the leg injury which blocked his transfer to Manchester United.

Lens play an attractive 4-3-3 - often more like 4-1-2-3, with Dehu as a kind of advanced sweeper. Their unconventional-looking manager, Daniel Leclercq, combines a Keegan-like commitment to attack with a taciturn, almost depressive, manner which makes Kenny Dalglish look jovial.

It is difficult to image a starker contrast between the two French managers in contention tomorrow night: the urbane, academic Arsene Wenger and the dishevelled, Leclercq, with his rumpled anorak, care-lined face and unruly wisps of blonde hair.

A local man and an inspirational Lens player in his youth, Leclercq fell out of the game altogether, becoming a village football and tennis coach, before returning as youth trainer and then - with spectacular success - first-team coach last year. He and the president make an odd couple during matches. The expensively-dressed Martel insists on sitting in the dug-out, with a permanent scowl on his face; Leclercq, resembling a down- and-out, anxiously prowls the touch-line.

Appearances are misleading. Leclercq is an inspirational leader and a considerable tactician. He is a passionate football man but he constantly betrays a sadness with the importance placed on football these days.

"It will be tough for us this year because everyone will be playing against the champions of the country which won the championship of the world," Leclercq said. "We are not Paris or Marseilles or Monaco. We don't brag. I've been going around calming people down. We don't want to make a mountain out of all this. The important thing is the game and the pleasure that comes from the game."

Martel's long-term game plan also requires a victory.

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