The Champions League

Exclusive | Salis Abdul Samed, GFFN’s Central Midfielder of the Year: “I’m more confident now.”

Lens’ road to a spot in the Champions League has been paved with standout individual performances – from Kevin Danso’s imposing defensive displays, to captain Séko Fofana’s match-winning long-range strikes, to Loïs Openda’s instant impact in front of goal. 

But one player who has gone under the radar, though, is summer recruit Salis Abdul Samed. The former Clermont man has more than managed to fill the Cheick Doucouré-shaped hole left in Franck Haise’s squad, and embodies the selfless nature of the team’s all-action approach. Abdul Samed, who, like Doucouré, is a JMG Academy graduate, has struck a midfield partnership with Séko Fofana that has served as the base for the team’s success.

Named in Get French Football News’ Ligue 1 Team of the Year, the Ghana international speaks to us about how his game has developed over the past year, and the team’s ambitions as the continental stage beckons.

RJ: Your return to action from suspension came against Reims, where you came back from behind to win despite going down to ten men. Do you think it’s a performance which encapsulates the team’s drive to get second place?

SAS: It shows that first of all, we’ve put the work in, after the team won the three matches while I was away. I wasn’t doing well after the red card, I went to see a psychologist. But in the end I was happy that the team won their games, so it didn’t trouble me too much. As for Friday, I was happy to be back at Bollaert, in front of our fans. I really wanted to play, it had been difficult watching on from the stands! 

Even after we had the red card [defender Kevin Danso was sent off after 20 minutes] we stayed solid, as we’ve been since the start of the season, and we didn’t let go. Thanks to that, we won.

You only joined last summer, but it feels like you’ve slotted into the team seamlessly. How did your arrival play out?

When I arrived, the coach and my teammates put their faith in me straight away. They helped me improve in training – I applied what I was doing at Clermont and listened to the coach in order to progress here as well. This team is like a family, so it was easy for me to adapt.

Was it Franck Haise specifically who convinced you to come to Lens?

Yes, he was the one who called my agents. He was really interested and wanted me to come, so then my agents spoke to the club. I wanted to come as well, because I felt it was the club that could allow me to improve and move forward, and I liked their style of play. I picked Lens, but there were other clubs interested as well.

Could you talk us through your partnership with Séko Fofana, how do you guys understand each other so well on the pitch?

He’s a great guy. When I arrived, he was giving me advice on the pitch – play freely, do what you’re capable of, go forward more often. We had some good chats, and since I’d watched Lens before I knew in which ways they would often push forward to try and score. So I said that I was happy to go up the pitch, as much as I was happy to stay back and play more defensively.

How have you experienced this rapid rise from Ligue 2 football to the Champions League next season?

I didn’t play that much in Ligue 2 – just seven or eight games – but I do the same thing now as I did back then, which is to work hard. But my first match in Ligue 1 was a bit stressful, because it was the first time I was starting a game as a professional. But I was told that hard work pays off, and because I played well I stayed in the team and kept playing for the rest of the season.

Could you talk about how Franck Haise has influenced your playing style this season?

He told me to push further up the pitch when I arrived. After our first friendly games, he and the video analysts showed me what I needed to do to improve my game. So I watched the videos after the games to correct my mistakes, and that’s helped me a lot to improve. And I’ve kept doing that since then. So the coach and also all of the staff have helped me improve, as well as my teammates.

So you feel as though you’ve gone up a level this season?

Yes, I feel as though I’ve improved offensively from my Clermont days. But also in terms of recovering the ball. Beforehand, I would win the ball back and pass it along – now, when I win the ball back, I can also bring it up the pitch myself, I’m more confident in that regard. I really feel free in the way I play here.

Is there a feeling around the club that you can keep pushing for the very top of the table in the seasons to come?

We’re like a family, so nothing will change in that sense next season, we’ll keep helping each other. We help each other when we make mistakes and we move forward together. That will be the same next season, we’ll keep working the same way. We’ll be playing in Europe, so we know that the level will be higher, so we’ll be working even harder to try and go far.

One aspect of Lens that’s attracted a lot of attention from abroad is the unique atmosphere that fans create in the stadium, it must be great to have that kind of support behind you to push you on

They push us a lot, we really feel like they’re with us. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never heard them booing a single player, even if someone might put in an average performance. They help us a lot, they understand football and know that everyone can make mistakes. When we’re tired, their encouragement helps us a lot to keep going on the pitch. We feel that they’re proud of us and that they’re happy we’re putting in the effort. And we tell ourselves that we’re doing it for them, especially when they keep pushing us in every game.

Your former team Clermont have been impressing this season, especially in the spring – have you been keeping an eye on them?

I always watch Clermont games when I get the chance, and honestly, they’ve really impressed me. When you see that a lot of the important players left last season – Mohamed Bayo, Akim [Zedadka], Vital [N’Simba] – I send messages to the players to tell them, respect to you guys and the coach for what you’re doing, I’m proud of you. Because they have quite a low budget, and now they’re eighth – what they’re doing is great, and I’m really happy for them.

Could you talk us through your World Cup campaign with Ghana?

It was the very highest level, I played against players I’d never faced before – guys like Federico Valverde, Luis Suárez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva … 

When I played against them, I could feel this was a different level. Even though we played really well, the others were simply better than us. It was really a very high level, better than Ligue 1. While I was there I tried to learn from the players there, especially those in my position like Valverde, and they influenced me a lot.

In terms of Ghana’s performance, we didn’t really have a lot of time together – even if we had some great players like Thomas Partey, Mohammed Kudus, Kamaldeen Sulemana, André Ayew, Mohammed Salisu… We had players who are at the highest level. But we had only met each other a few weeks before, we weren’t really a team in the same way Lens is, for example. At Lens, we all know each other – for example, we know that if one guy moves into a certain position, the other has to play the ball into a certain space. So with Ghana it was a bit difficult for us to play together. I think if we’d known each other for longer, we might have been able to do better.

To go back to Lens – this season, you’ve beaten the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille, do you think the team has a taste for the big games that will serve you well in Europe?

As a team, we never give up, we’ll give it our all and everyone knows their job. We know that Europe is the highest level, so we need to work even harder to make sure we’re ready. We’ve beaten Marseille, PSG, Monaco in Ligue 1, but it’s not the same in Europe, there are different players and different tactics. We know it’s going to be difficult, but it’s up to us to prepare. I think mentally speaking, as well as physically, we’ll be ready. We’ll see what happens.

GFFN | Raphaël Jucobin

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