Ladies and Gentlemen, hold on to your hats!
With Yoann Gourcuff at the helm, the Ligue 1 title race is shaping up to be the most interesting in years. Can Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux strip Olympique Lyonnais from its helm at the top of the French league or will that honor be bestowed on Eric Geret’s Marseille? If squad talent is anything to go by, then Lyon is on its way to its 8th straight title but since the game is not played on paper, there’s a chance Lyon just might fall short of its conquest.
After 3rd and 2nd consecutive finishes, Jacques Santini’s Lyon won its first ever domestic title in the 2001-02 season and has never looked back since. After leaving to coach the French national team, Paul Le Guen took helm at Lyon and continued the winning tradition by leading the team to three straight Ligue 1 titles which was followed by ex-Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier who likewise led the club to two straight league titles.
Not willing to be outdone by his predecessor, ex-Portsmouth manager Alain Perrin did the double as Lyon won the league for the 7th straight season and also captured its first Coupe de France (France’s equivalent of the FA cup) but was replaced at the end of the season by former Lille coach Claude Puel. Highly tipped to win its 8th straight title, Puel’s Lyon have been less than stellar this season – the team has won 2 of its last 7 games and were knocked out of the Coupe de la Ligue by Ligue 2 side FC Metz.
As the club continues to falter on the pitch, title hopefuls FC Bordeaux and Stade Rennais have closed the gap and are one and two points behind the league leaders. Off the pitch, all’s not rosy at the Stade Gerland following want-away striker Sidney Govou’s latest comments suggesting the atmosphere in the locker room is not quite up to par.
The question however remains; can the chasing pack dethrone Lyon and begin a new era of competitive French football or will Lyon bully its way onto another domestic title leaving its challengers eating dust.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Marseille as my childhood hero, African legend Abedi Pele, plied his trade for the South-East club. Marseille is France’s most successful club with 8 Ligue 1 titles, 10 French Cup titles and the crème de la crème, the 1993 UEFA champions league. Since Lyon’s reign atop the Ligue 1, the club has been silverwarelessness with 2 top three finishes in the league.
A fantastic UEFA cup in 2004 on the shoulders of Didier Drogba saw the team beat the likes on Inter Milan, Liverpool and Newcastle United only to lose in the final to Spanish giants Valencia, has been the highlight for Ligue 1’s best supported club over the past 8 years. Years of disappointments maybe at an end as club President Pape Diouf (European football’s only Black president) and Coach Eric Gerets are building a formidable team to rival the powers that be at Lyon.
Armed with the famous blue and white striped cheque book, Diouf appointed Belgian footballing legend and ex-Galatasaray manager Eric Gerets in 2007. Despite losing the highly talented Samir Nasri to Arsenal, L’OM signed Algerian playmaker Karim Ziani, diminutive Ivorian striker Bakari Kone, France’s number one goalkeeper Steve Mandanda whilst retaining the services of Nigerian left-back Taye Taiwo, Senegalese superstar Mamadou Niang, Arsenal’s Cameroonian target Modesto M’bami and Lorik Cana.
Perhaps the club’s most important business was £9.5 million bargain signing Hatem Ben Arfa, the 21 yr old ex-Lyon playmaker/troublemaker joined the club last summer. Marseille possess the most potent attack in the league with 35 goals – strikers Niang and Kone have 6 goals each – along with the best goaltender (Mandanda), and arguably the defensive midfielder (Lorik Cana), but the team’s porous defense which has leaked 24 goals is a fan’s biggest nightmare and coach Gerets biggest challenge.
The club has been busy in January with the signing of ex-Arsenal star Silvan Wiltord on loan from Stade Rennais and â‚¬6.5 million Shaktar Donetsk’s Brazilian striker Brandao – a cover for injured goal poachers Niang and Kone. Marseille have also been heavily linked to Standard Liege’s American defender Oguchi Onyenwu and recently deposed Arsenal skipper William Gallas.
The club’s the ability to hold on to captain Lorik Cana, roving full back Taiwo, out of contract midfielder Modesto M’bami and highly rated manager Eric Gerets will ultimately test Marseille’s long term ambition and more importantly, its title credentials.
The cheeky bastards at PSG grabbed Ligue 1 headlines last season as the club flirted with relegation only to survive by the skin of its teeth. For most of last season, 2 million Parisians endured sleepless nights as its beloved football club drifted in and out of relegation. With 3 games left, the team sat in 18th place. Draws against Saint-Ã‰tienne and fellow relegation candidate Toulouse and a win on the final day of the season against Sochaux saved France’s most populous club and ensured Ligue 1 football the next season.
If last season was a failure, then this season has been a success as PSG sits in 6th place, 6 points behind league leaders Lyon. Former Lyon manager Paul Le Guen miraculously survived the sack after last season’s debacle and thanks an excellent summer transfer campaign, smiles reign at the Parc des Princes. At Lyon, Le Guen had a balanced side; a potent attack along with a rock solid defense made lightweight of its Ligue 1 counterparts and its performance in Europe was admirable. At PSG, he inherited a – pardon my language – shit team with 34 yr old Portuguese striker Pauletta pulling the trigger upfront, a recipe for disaster.
Le Guen’s decision to sign retired French internationals Claude Makalele (free from Chelsea) and Ludovic Guily (â‚¬2.5 million from Roma) along with the return of prolific striker Guillaume Hoarau – leads the team with 11 goals – has turned last year’s whipping boys into formidable UEFA CUP contenders and maybe with a bit of luck, title challengers. The club beat out the likes of Arsenal and Newcastle for the signature of â‚¬10 million Beninese Stephane Sessegnon from Le Mans who played out his skin all season – a nice piece of business by Paul Le Guen.
PSG owes much of its success to the balance midfield play of veteran Claude Makalele and youngster Jeremy Clement whose defensive awareness has shored up a mediocre back line. As the January transfer window takes shape, defenders Aquivaldo Mosquera of Sevilla and Marco Caneira of Sporting CP have been heavily linked with the Parisian club but the club’s top priority appears to be Sporting CP’s Russian playmaker Marat Izmailov – targets which would add depth and much needed quality.
Most PSG fans will admit the chances of the club lifting the Ligue 1 trophy are very slim, but as we all know, football like life is full of curve balls and sometimes the peculiar happens.
Toulouse and Stade Rennais
On the shoulders of Ligue 1 top scorer André-Pierre Gignac, Toulouse alongside PSG have been the surprise of the league. Like the aforementioned PSG, Toulouse almost got relegated last season and only scraped through by defeating Valenciennes on the final day of the season. After losing striker Johan Elmander to Bolton, most Toulouse fans were skeptical about the club’s immediate future in top flight French football and were resigned to another year trying to avoid the drop.
Newly appointed manager Alain Cassanova invested the â‚¬12 million from Elmander’s move with the capture of ex-Rennais captain Etienne Didot and gigantic Danish striker Søren Larsen from Schalke. While Didot has been spectacular all season long, Søren Larsen has been dismal all season long thus the team has heavily relied on Gignac for any attacking threat.
Manager Alain Cassanova’s rigid defensive formation and counter attacking style of football is subject to debate as the team has conceded an impressive 15 goals all season yet 20 goals against opposition play is a worrying sign. Toulouse are probably not genuine title challengers as their main target should be a top table finish and maybe with reinforcements in January, a top six finish.
Stade Rennais probably deserve more than a paragraph but truth be told, i haven’t seen much of them all season. Rennais have been the most consistent club in the Ligue 1 all season along with best defense, and are on an 18 game unbeaten league run – the best in European football. Lyon’s 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Rennais signaled the team’s title ambitions and draws against Bordeaux and Marseille earlier in the season is testament to Guy Lacombe’s managerial skill.
Club captain Etienne Didot was sold to Toulouse during the summer which struck me as a strange one but youngster Asamoah Gyan’s move from Udinese was a clever piece of business. Bankrolled by Billionaire François Pinault, Rennais have been one of the more consistent sides over the past five years but have been unable to challenge Lyon on and off the field. Under the stewardship of attacking trio Jimmy Briand, Moussa Sow and veteran Mickael Pagis alongside creative midfield duo Bruno Cheyrou and the highly rated Stéphane M’Bia, the team appears to have finally found the perfect balance to stand toe to toe with Lyon for the Ligue 1 crown.
FC Girondins de Bordeaux
I’m tempted to ignore the rest of Bordeaux’s players and just make this a “Is he or Isn’t he the next Zidane” debate. Move over Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez – one of many players who have correctly or incorrectly been labeled the next Zidane – and let’s pay homage to the brilliant Yoann Gourcuff.
The AC Milan young starlet currently at loan at Bordeaux has done his best to avoid comparisons to the great one but with this and this, he’s surely going about it the wrong way. Along with the aforementioned Gourcuff, Bordeaux have one of the best managers in Laurent Blanc who led the club to a second place finish last season, 4 points adrift of winners Lyon.
After an ill fated stint at Spartak Moscow, Argentine striker Fernando Cavenaghi return to form at Bordeaux has propelled the team to just a single point off top spot. The striker’s 15 goals last season along with 12 goals in 20 games his season has attracted English club Tottenham but no concrete offers have yet been made. Along with Lyon and Rennais, the team is unbeaten at home all season and have scored 35 goals (tied best in Ligue 1) with a +16 goal difference (best in Ligue 1).
Bordeaux’s title ambitions will be determined in the month of April with a home tie against Lyon and an away tie Rennais in weeks 32 and 33. If Gourcuff, Cavenaghi, Wendel and Alou Diarra can maintain their current form and Lyon continue to stumble, FC Girondins de Bordeaux might will be crowned Ligue 1 champions on May 30th – mark my words.