Lens, France: Lens’ Champions League clash with Arsenal on Tuesday will see the French side come full circle in the season that marks their return to Europe’s elite club competition after two decades away. The golden era for the Blood and Gold (“Les Sang et Or”) came in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before a long stint in the doldrums and then a remarkable recent revival. Lens were crowned French champions in 1998 for the only time in their history, an achievement which earned them a first crack at the Champions League. In November that year, having already held the Arsenal of Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Nicolas Anelka and Marc Overmars at home, they travelled to London to play Arsene Wenger’s side at Wembley. A Mickael Debeve goal gave them a shock 1-0 win as 8,000 travelling fans celebrated one of the finest results in the club’s history. “It was the high point of my career,” recalled Debeve, hardly a superstar, in an interview last year with lensois.com. “They were one of the best two or three teams in Europe at the time. It was like playing against Real Madrid or Barcelona, a team full of internationals. “It was unexpected for us to be playing in such a competition against a team like that.” Lens were nevertheless denied a place in the knockout rounds by Andriy Shevchenko’s Dynamo Kyiv, and two years later Arsenal gained revenge by beating the French club in the UEFA Cup semi-finals. Now, a quarter of a century on from that night at Wembley, Lens will host Arsenal at a packed Stade Bollaert-Delelis, whose 38,000 capacity is famously larger than the entire population of the northern French town. Lens did have one other crack at the Champions League in 2002/03, beating AC Milan and drawing with Bayern Munich. But decline set in as they suffered three relegations between 2008 and 2015 and spent the best part of a decade in Ligue 2. It was hard to imagine them returning to this stage, especially given the context in Lens itself. Situated in an industrial region near France’s border with Belgium, Lens was a centre of coal production for over a century before the last mine shut in the 1980s. That was a huge economic blow to the town, which is among the poorest settlements in France and where Marine Le Pen came out on top by a distance in the 2022 presidential election. It is a world away from the glamour of Paris, the other French city hosting Champions League football this season.