French Fight of Four

In this country, nothing is certain.

Juventus – nine-point advantage. Bayern – eight points ahead of Wolfsburg. Chelsea – five points clear with one game to spare. PSV Eindhoven – eleven points over Ajax, and that’s even despite their 1-3 defeat to the Amsterdam team this weekend. Benfica – four-point edge over Porto. The gaps in top European leagues are already significant; the bettings for 2014-15 champions does not take geniuses to get them right. Even in Spain, where Real Madrid’s advantage over Barcelona has shrunk to 2 points this weekend, the race for the title has been effectively narrowed down to the same two teams all over again, since the defending champions Atletico are trailing the leaders’ seat by seven points. Surely, it’s getting boring a little. But, at the same time, in Ligue 1, leaders from Lyon are only 1 point ahead of defending champions PSG, four points ahead of Marseille and if Monaco wins their extra game against Evian this week, they’ll be fairly close to catching the leading trio. Aside from that, the fourth spot and the Europa League qualification, held by ASM at the moment, should be contested till the and by three other teams: Saint-Etienne, Monpellier and Bordeaux. Yes, French competition is on fire this year.

Ligue 1 – standings

Few people predicted it to turn out this way. After Lyon, the seven-time consecutive French champions, have finally lost their dominant status in 2008-09 season, the league was won by four different teams in four years, including previously obsolete teams of Lille and Montpellier. However, the 2011’s summer takeover of Paris Saint-Germain by ludicrously wealthy Qatar Sports Investments group and the subsequent 2011’s winter takeover of Monaco by Russian businessman Dmitry Rybolovlev were expected to settle the pace of the league for many years. Just like the examples of Chelsea and Manchester City in England, the richest two clubs were expected not only to utterly dominate the domestic scene but also to grow fast enough and attract football stars from other leagues. They were also expected to eventually challenge for continental trophies; trophies that were always a bane of their existence, as French clubs never won UEFA Cup or Europa League and the only Champions Cup they captured was 1993 OM’s surprising victory over A.C. Milan. For three years, it seemed that at least PSG is following that path. After finishing 2011-12 season as runner-ups, they’ve won Ligue 1 twice. Until now…

Now, it’s slightly different. Although Les Parisiens are continuously being funded by endless streams of petrodollars and even though they’ve strengthened their squad further with €8m transfer of Serge Aurier and shocking €50m hiring of David Luiz – their championship quest is in question. And it’s all because of draws. PSG drew six out of ten initial games this season – that including the super-important clashes with Lyon and Monaco, in which the defending champions were leading and doing better than the opponents only to concede two late equalizers. As a result, despite playing 27 league games, Laurent Blanc’s team has never been a Ligue 1 leader this season! Frankly, the overwhelming wins like 5-0 over Saint-Etienne, 3-0 over Bordeaux, 2-0 over OM and 3-2 over Barcelona in Champions League, did not fix the poor impression. And what if Zlatan Ibrahimović was always fully fit and healthy? Unfortunately, the Swedish striker has been struggling with annoying heel injury since September 2014, contributing only 11 goals and 2 assists in his 18 league appearances. For anyone else, this would’ve been a good record; for Zlatan standards, though, it’s clear that the injury is taking it’s toll.

PSG still remain slight favourites to win it all, but they need to knock Lyon out of their perch. After Hubert Fournier and his boys lost three games in a row early this season, everything seemed to be slipping away from them – especially since Toulouse, Lens and Metz, who defeated them, soon turned out to be L1’s primary relegation candidates. However, from that moment on, Lyon has won 15 games, drew six and suffered only one, away loss to Rennes. Alexandre Lacazette, the 23-years old pacey striker already followed closely by the scouts of Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, has already scored 21 league goals and only a disaster could deprive him from winning the Golden Boot this season. He also owes a big debt to Nabil Fekir and Jordan Ferri: the teams’ two other best assist providers, both even younger than the youthful Lacazette. But it’s not only attacking play Lyon has to offer: with just 21 goals conceded, their backline consistently delivers too: especially Portugese goalie Anthony Lopes and experienced right-back Christophe Jallet, who was just brought to the team this summer from… PSG. All that success continues even despite very modest spendings – only €4m! Yes, in this case, it’s all about home-grown players.

While OL are enjoying their lead, the other Olympique – from Marseille – must be furious about recent developments. The team that started this season with a big bang, won eight games in a row and occupied the #1 spot for full fourteen weeks – is losing it. Marcelo Bielsa, who coached OM to play uncompromising football (only 5 draws in current campaign) still has a lot of things to figure out. One particularly big concern is how to make the team finally win an away game, because they weren’t able to do that since October 4 2014. Another thing is defensive play: between December and now, the team has conceded 20 goals in 13 games in all competitions, with only 1 clean sheet under their belt – far too bad of a result for a team with the ambition of catching PSG and Lyon. But what else could happen to a club that just lost their most valuable player? Nicolas N’Koulou, the indispensable centre-back has picked up the injury at African Cup of Nations, recently went through a surgery to fix the damage and will be sidelined until May. His replacements – young Baptiste Aloe and veteran Rod Fanni – are both not enough to cover for that loss. Can OM’s super-sub, 21 years old Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi score more goals than those two let in?

Because if Marseille can’t keep up the pace, Monaco definitely can. After selling James Rodriguez to Real Madrid and loaning Radamel Falcao to Manchester United, everyone expected Rouges et Blancs to make way for other teams. Their limited ambitions were supposed to be the results of their owners’ stormy divorce with his wife Elena, who reportedly took Rybolovlev’s $4.8 billion with her, snaring the biggest post-marriage settlement in the history of mankind. In those uncertain days, Monaco team had some survival ideas and in the absence of truly prolific goalscorers, they turned heavily into defensive play. With only 26 goals scored so far, they’re fifth worst attacking team in Ligue 1; however, at the same time, with 19 conceded goals, they’re by far the best defenders out there. The stronghold of Geoffrey Kondogbia in the midfield, Jeremy Toulalan, Layvin Kurzawa and Fabinho at the backline, combined with Danijel Subašić in goal were too much for such teams as OM, Lyon, Montpellier and Lille. Even Arsenal, who controlled the game against ASM at Emirates in Champions League, could not really hurt them and eventually lost to a stern, athletic approach of the French side. Leonardo Jardim must have taken notes from his fellow compatriot, José Mourinho…

The race between these is as entertaining as the French league used to be in the times when there were no obviously dominant teams out there at all. Let’s check last weekend: Monaco took on PSG at home. Anything could happen in that game; the champions are known for their preference towards holding onto the ball, but Monaco is fond of their counterattacking play; such clash of styles should suit both of them. It went as expected: first half was a great display of pressurizing the opponent upfront, as Monaco moved their 4-3-3 formation around, allowing the visitors to only exchange sideways passes and not make any progress in the final third. If there was any damage that could’ve been inflicted upon Monaco, it was coming down the left wing, from Matuidi, or from balls over the top played by David Luiz to either Cavani or Lavezzi. The former took two shots from the positions in which Ibrahimović would certainly score at least once. But the Argentinian is not Zlatan; at first, he was stopped by Subašić only to horribly kick the ball over the bar later. Disappointing; after 45 minutes of defending only, Monaco got away with 0-0.

None shall pass: Pastore was held off this time.

Second half was no better for Laurent Blanc’s team. Lavezzi managed to nicely set up Pastore’s chance early on, but the first-touch finish was awful. Few minutes later, the ex-Palermo playmaker had even better opportunity: Verratti provided him with a spot-on through ball and only Subašić’s brave save prevented what looked like a certain goal. This was the main theme right until the end: PSG stronger, more creative but useless in front of the goal. Monaco did not impress either. Despite bringing in Berbatov and repeatedly sending Ferreira-Carrasco to dribble down the wings, they never had a realistic chance to score that day. In their last attempt, PSG restored to crossing from flanks, pushing David Luiz little more forward to match ASM’s physical superiority in front of the home side’s goal. But nothing really would work for them – against eight-player defensive line, no player could go through, not to mention the shots. And so they drew 0-0. Not enough. Not just because of PSG’s advantage; the stakes of this game were in fact much higher.

Yes, the stakes were higher – and they knew it. After all, two days earlier, OM took on Caen at Stade Velodrome. It couldn’t start better than this: 65 seconds into the game, Batshuayi was fouled in the penalty area and he tried to convert it by himself. But he couldn’t; Vercourtre guessed the direction properly and parried the shot. This didn’t stop Marseille from playing an open, back-and-forth game, hitting the woodwork and finally scoring in the 1st half’s stoppage time, thanks to Payet’s shot that was deflected by the goalkeeper right into Andre Ayew’s path. When Gignac scored a second goal in 62th minute, it seemed that Marcelo Bielsa will finally leave the stadium in a good mood. He never did: between 67th and 87th minute, Caen scored three times and hijacked the show completely. It took one tap-in after a near-post directed corner, one counterattack in which N’Golo Kanté has brilliantly sent though Emiliano Sala and, eventually, a sensational strike towards the top right corner by the substitute, Nicolas Benezet. Each and every time, it was OM leaving the opposition oceans of space in the middle for counterattack opportunities – and Caen finishing their chances clinically. In the end, OM fans had enough: many of them left the stadium before the final whistle.

But it’s not just them, who screwed up this weekend; Lyon fell apart too. After earning a deserved early lead and missing multiple other opportunities by both sides, the one-touch dynamic play from Lille attacking four was too much in the second half and Idrissa Gueye equalized by the virtue of a brilliant one-two with Marcos Lopes. Three minutes later, the Portuguese midfielder, motivated like a beast he was in that game, shrugged off the marking just outside the penalty area, looked up and took a left-leg shot that went in a bottom corner of visitors’ goal. As he dived into the forest of hands belonging to ecstatic Lille fans, it was clear that Ligue 1 is once again a competition in which surprises are ordinary and nothing can be taken for granted. After all, OL goes to Montpellier and Marseille next; PSG shall visit dangerous ground in Bordeaux just four days after their Chelsea fixture; and Monaco, who have the easiest fixtures of them all, will go to Stade Velodrome in May, just three games away from this season’s finish. So, who’s going to clinch it? Heart says: Lyon, head says: PSG. The reality says: we won’t know until the final whistle of the final game.

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