Does anybody have the nerve to win Ligue 1?
Finally, in the penultimate match of Ligue 1’s first weekend of 2015, we had a title contender that looked like one. Lyon’s authoritative 3-0 win over Toulouse on Sunday afternoon saw Hubert Fournier’s side sweep to the top of the table, after the other two teams comprising the winter top three, Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain, passed up the chance to extend their lead and take first place respectively on successive days.
PSG’s struggles continue to be the headline story of the season to date. Having finished 2014 in a barely-believable third place, they finish the first round of fixtures back outside the Champions League positions altogether in fourth, after their defeat at Bastia on Saturday afternoon was followed by Saint Etienne’s win at Reims later that evening, a result which meant Les Verts leapfrogged the champions.
The shock of losing to Bastia, who began the afternoon in 19th place in the table, is bad enough. Conceding 4 times to a team with the worst attack in Ligue 1 before this weekend – 16, the joint-lowest goal total, shared with Lille, going into the 20th round of fixtures – was something else entirely.
There was a sense that everything that could have gone wrong for Laurent Blanc’s men did – Bastia had just 6 efforts at goal in the entire match, 2 of which were the decisive goals of the afternoon by Julien Palmieri, a 28-year-old left-back with just one previous Ligue 1 strike to his name. “Everyone has one game in their career,” grinned his experienced teammate François Modesto, also a goalscorer, after the match.
It was still well below par from Paris. Nicolas Douchez, standing in for regular goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, lacked any real authority, but the unusually low output of some of the team’s reliable regulars was more notable. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who produced just one shot, one key pass and was caught offside 3 times, was ineffective. He has not scored in the league since his double against Nantes at the beginning of December.
Javier Pastore failed to produce a single key pass (although his halted dribble inadvertently led to Adrien Rabiot’s goal), and Blaise Matuidi was again a shadow of his best self, managing a modest 3 tackles against combative opponents and (glaringly) no interceptions.
Blanc will have the services of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi at his disposal again when PSG try to get back on track against third-bottom Evian Thonon Gaillard next Sunday, which will help (the former has 7 in 16 starts this season, despite the constant speculation over his future). Make no mistake, they are still favourites to retain their title, but Blanc’s inability to regularly call upon his ideal midfield three of Matuidi, Marco Veratti and Thiago Motta, who have started 12, 14 and 14 Ligue 1 games respectively this season, is a problem.
This is exactly the sort of bad spell that Marseille could, and should, be taking advantage of, but they appear ill equipped to do so on current form. Had they won at Montpellier on Friday night, Marcelo Bielsa’s side would have led the way today regardless of any of the other results, and they would have held a six-point advantage over PSG.
That they do not following the 2-1 defeat at Stade de la Mosson is perhaps symptomatic of a wider malaise. The assumption has been that Bielsa’s team had recovered well from their Le Classique defeat by PSG in November – they won 3 and drew 1 of the next 4 – but in fact their away form has been questionable since then. Starting with that defeat, Marseille have lost 3 and drawn 1 of 4 away matches following Friday’s reverse.
The attacking blend that seemed so fluent for most of the first half of the season seems to have been blown off course. André-Pierre Gignac’s current fortunes are certainly a worry. Having scored 10 in his first 10 Ligue 1 appearances of the season, the striker has netted just 2 in the 10 matches since.
Defensively there are concerns too, with Nicolas Nkoulou, missing as he serves at the Africa Cup of Nations with Cameroon (Nkoulou is the squad’s outstanding player this season, referred to by Bielsa as “my crack,” or superstar, and rating 7.62). That their deepest midfielder Giannelli Imbula is so adept at dribbling (3.7 per game, with 4 more at Montpellier) suggests maybe Bielsa would be better off withdrawing one of the cast in front of him and providing the young Frenchman with more defensive support.
Montpellier winger Anthony Mounier (who had scored in that win at the Vélodrome back in August) noted on beIN Sports after the game that his team had targeted Imbula as being “on his own” fairly regularly. The opposition is getting wise to Bielsa’s plans, it seems.
So strangely, as it stands, the only title chasers to look as if they have a real sense of their own identity areLyon, despite their youth in comparison to their rivals. That so many of Fournier’s XI are from the club’s academy is perhaps key to that (8 of the starters against Toulouse were graduates), with Alexandre Lacazette leading the way. He now has 19 goals and 5 assists in his 20 starts. “He proves match after match that he’s the best player in Ligue 1 at the present moment,” goalkeeper Anthony Lopes said after the game.
The figures back Lopes up. Lacazette averages a league-best 8.03 rating, and has 7 man-of-the-match awards. The potential has always been there, and added responsibility has helped him grow. In his last season playing as a wide player rather than as a centre-forward (2012/13), Lacazette managed just 1.2 shots per match. Then came the departure of Lisandro Lopez, after which Lacazette moved into the central position for which he trained in the academy, and the rest is history. His current rate of shots per game is 3.4, marginally ahead of last campaign’s 3.3.
Their local rivals – and the last team to beat them – Saint Etienne can’t completely be ruled out, especially given that Renaud Cohade’s late (and anecdotal) own goal on Saturday was the first Stéphane Ruffier had conceded in 709 minutes. Yet their modest offensive power (24 goals, compared to Lyon’s 43 and Marseille’s 39) means they are long shots.
What is less clear is who are the most convincing contenders. For now, Lyon are more poised than the rest.?
Who do you think will claim the Ligue 1 crown come the end of the season?