By Matthew Spiro
RC Lens are set to blood a host of youngsters in the next month, as more than half of their first team head to Tunisia for the African Cup of Nations.
France is the European country most affected by the African tournament, with all 20 top-flight clubs - as well as several second division ones - losing at least one player to the competition, which runs from 24 January until 14 February.
Lens are the most seriously hit, with six regulars - Senegal's Pape Bouba Diop and Abdoulaye Faye, Mali's Adama Coulibaly and Seydou Keita, Cameroon's Rigobert Song and Nigeria's John Utaka - all being called up by their countries.
Nevertheless, the club have put considerable thought into how to cope during the tournament, and rather than complain about its timing, they are taking a positive outlook. "We've been aware of the situation for a long time, so we're not going to start crying now," said coach Joël Muller. "For us the African Cup of Nations represents an opportunity to look at some of the young talent we've got."
Assistant coach Georges Tournay agreed with Muller, and claimed he had been looking forward to this period all season. "It's great for players who have not had much of a chance this season, like Pape Sarr, Patrick Barul and Rod Fanni," Tournay said. "A few of the young players are going to have to take extra responsibility, but this is why we've invested in our centre of excellence."
With so many influential players missing, Lens, currently tenth in Ligue 1, have been criticised for not bringing in reinforcements. But Tournay believes their no-buy policy is correct, saying: "If we brought in new players, how would we justify that to the youngsters who have been waiting patiently for their chance?"
Club president Gervais Martel, who has given himself the long-term target of making Lens one of Europe's top 30 teams by 2009, insists that signing new players during the season goes against the club's policy of continuity. "Not long ago we were being criticised for changing our squad too much, now people are asking why we're not buying," he said. "Perhaps we would pick up more points in the next month if we signed a couple of players, but it would not be beneficial in the long term."
Faith in youth
Martel went on: "The only reason we'd sign someone would be to replace a player who is leaving for good. We want to show faith in the players we've got, people who have been at this club, working hard, for a long time. In a few years, I hope that a quarter of the team will be homegrown players."
Lens's understanding attitude towards the African Cup of Nations - which is unlike that of many other European clubs who are losing fewer players - has increased solidarity in the squad. Senegal midfield player Diop confirmed he would follow the team's fortunes with interest from Tunisia. "My country needs me so I have to go," he explained. "I'll be in Tunisia but my spirits will also be in Lens."
Meanwhile, captain Song is backing the young players to succeed. "I am not at all concerned about the lads," said the Cameroon defender. "They are excellent players who can come in and compensate for our departure."
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