In a relegation fight special, GFFN features writer Eric Devin presents a piece looking at the challenges facing relegation-threatened Ligue 1 outfits as the season reaches a climax. This article was written before Nantes’ victory over Marseille last night.
With Rennes now all but safe on 45 points, and Metz and Lens now nine adrift of safety the struggle to avoid relegation is beginning to come into sharper focus. In what is sure to be one of Europe’s most engaging denouements, nine sides are now clustered between Nice on 41 and the trio of Reims, Lorient and Toulouse on 35, all having played 32 matches. Each of the nine have their share of transcendent (if inconsistent) players and, starting with Saturday’s clash between Lorient and Toulouse, the opportunity to put points up against each other on multiple occasions.
While a match by match run-through would be an exercise in futility as far as predicting their clashes against each other, the hope here is that a brief overview of each side’s fixture list can give a general sense of the likelihood of survival. Coupled with this more holistic approach, each team’s section is also accompanied by a brief profile of a player whose form is likely to be key to his side’s chances.
OGC Nice: 41 points, 10th
Normally one wouldn’t expect a team on 41 points with six matches to play to be involved in a relegation scrap, but with Metz and Lens having been so poor this season, there is every chance that 41 will not ensure survival this year. Having beaten each of Marseille, Monaco and Lyon this season, but also losing to Ligue 2 strugglers Valenciennes in the Coupe de la Ligue, Nice under Claude Puel are the very picture of inconsistency, the model for predictive failure. That said, one more win is probably enough to ensure their safety on 44 points, given a goal differential of only -3, no matter what may come other results. Paris Saint-Germain may not be the easiest opportunity to net that win, especially with a domestic treble looking possible.
However, it is instructive to remember the reverse fixture, where Nice played well, a penalty proving the difference between the two sides. Too, while David Luiz is now fit again, Thiago Silva has been added to the casualty list, leaving Luiz likely to partner with Marquinhos in central defense for the first time in seven months. Even if Les Aiglons fail on Saturday, home matches with Lens and Caen remain, and it would be a great surprise to see Claude Puel’s side fall short of safety.
Key Player: Simon Pouplin
As impressive as youngster Mouez Hassen has been this season, Pouplin’s reintroduction to the side has been key in edging his side away from the bottom. Strong in the surprising defeat of Lyon on Matchday 30, Pouplin again proved his worth via a penalty save against Daniel Wass in Nice’s 2-2 draw against Evian, a Kevin Gomis own goal all that separates the keeper’s return from coinciding with three wins on the bounce. If Pouplin’s assured form continues, Nice are all but certain to stay up.
FC Nantes: 40 Points, 11th
As I wrote earlier in the season, Michel Der Zakarian’s ability to achieve relative success despite Nantes’ transfer embargo via a hard-working pressing style was nothing less than miraculous. 4th after Matchday 14, the club have, however, stuttered badly in the interim, failing to score more than once in the league since the turn of the year. Sitting 17th in the table for that same span of time, ahead of only Lens, Metz and Reims, this downturn in form would ordinarily make Les Canaris a sure thing for relegation, but for the struggles of the trio below them: Metz, Lens and Reims.
The only side to be beaten by Reims in 2015, Nantes have continued to be defensively sound, but Sunday’s loss to Saint-Etienne is the perfect microcosm of their season. Solid throughout defensively in open play, but caught napping on a set piece, the team went down 1-0 early on, and, stripped of players allowed to have creative rein, struggled to create chances thereafter. Were it not for Reims’ own woeful run of form, upcoming fixtures against Marseille, PSG and Bordeaux might seem that much more daunting, to say nothing about meetings with potentially desperate Lorient and Toulouse. While Nantes would do well to be a bit more nervous entering the run-in, they should end up safe, as a scraped draw here or there should keep the club in Ligue 1.
Key Player: Jordan Veretout
Tipped for big things after notching six goals from midfield in Ligue 2 at eighteen, Veretout’s form in the beginning of the season was key to Nantes’ success. Playing further forward than in the past, often as an attacking midfielder, the youngster notched six goals and three assists in his first seventeen matches. His creativity eventually became the key in a side where defensive duty often shackled the wider players. Now, with only one assist to show in the calendar year, things have become more difficult for the youngster and his side as a whole.
While it is hard to argue for the defensive strength of Der Zakarian’s aggressive pressing game, leaving Veretout as the sole creative option has left Nantes on a hiding to nothing. While it is difficult to saddle such a young player with so much responsibility, unless the young midfielder can recapture some of the form that made him one of the first half’s surprises, things could end up being quite uncomfortable for Nantes.
EA Guingamp: 39 points, 12th
With home matches against Toulouse, Reims and Evian remaining, Coupe de France semi-finalists Guingamp should find the three or four points necessary for survival with ease. It is, however, a good thing that those home matches remain on EAG’s fixture list, as trips to Saint-Etienne and PSG look particularly daunting. Upset by Ligue 2 side Auxerre in their bid for a second consecutive Coupe de France final, Guingamp are, like the previous two teams, only in need of a handful of points to ensure safety.
They are also, like Nice and Nantes, seemingly already on the beach. In their two most recent league matches, losses to Lyon and Rennes respectively, Guingamp made no bones about their general level of exhaustion, allowing a depleted Lyon to have their way, and while a late goal settled a tense encounterat the Stade de la Route de Lorient, the side seemed similarly off the boil. Owing to their Europa League adventure, by the end of the season, Guingamp will have played 53 matches, a figure exceeded only by PSG and Monaco in Ligue 1. That said, if any side deserve to let up the intensity a bit, it is Guingamp. In bottom place after Matchday 20, the club turned things around dramatically by winning five of seven matches, despite European obligations as well.
Key Player: Jeremy Pied
While Claudio Beauvue has taken all the headlines during Guingamp’s fairytale rise, netting twelve goals in the league and becoming linked with any one a half dozen bigger clubs, the former Lyon man’s transformation has been a revelation. Labeled as an indifferent fancy-footed winger during his time under Claude Puel, a transfer to Nice to rejoin his old manager did little to revive his career.
This season, however, Pied has been a regular for Jocelyn Gourvennec, arriving on loan after the season’s start, contributing a handful of assists, but also more than putting in a shift defensively. Able to play anywhere across the midfield save a holding role, Pied’s energy, discipline and grit have been instrumental in Guingamp’s ability to pick up surprising results. While EAG are far from a defensive fortress, their record with Pied in the side is much better than without, and the odd scraped result is much more likely with his inclusion.
SM Caen: 38 points, 13th place
Another club who occupied bottom place in the not-so-distant past, Caen’s effervescent style under Patrice Garande has made them one of Ligue 1’s most entertaining sides. This style, however, had until mid-January also made them the league’s joint-worst defensive side, and even more of a certainty for relegation than Metz and Lens are at present.
Following a dour 1-0 loss to Lille, though, the side, fueled by the introduction of Emiliano Sala on loan from Bordeaux, Caen became the league’s form team winning six of seven, the only exception a 2-all draw at the Parc des Princes. Getting goals from across midfield and their frontline, Caen became masters of the counter-attack, able to break quickly through a variety of young, exciting players like Lenny Nangis, N’Golo Kante and Thomas Lemar.
Results have tailed off in recent weeks, but aside from a visit from Lyon, with all of Caen’s remaining matches against similarly-placed lower mid-table sides, the thinking here is that a few points are inevitable and will get the side over the line.
Key Player: Thomas Lemar
While it is tempting to put Sala in this space, owing to his importance immediately following his arrival, the recent emergence of winger Thomas Lemar has perhaps even more potential to affect the run-in. Used sparingly over the first part of the season, with Kante, Nangis and Herve Bazile often preferred, the youngster has really kicked on in the past few weeks, his introduction radically changing the course of more than a few matches.
Stinging the crossbar against Metz, scoring and drawing a free kick against Nantes, and providing key assists from dead balls against Marseille and Bordeaux, the diminutive winger’s verve and energy will likely be necessary in a few more matches, further evidence of the breeding ground for young talent that is Ligue 1.
SC Bastia: 37 Points, 14th
Yet another club to have emerged from the mire, Bastia have been inspired under Ghislain Printant, having been bottom three matches after his appointment. Slowly rising under the side’s former youth manager, Bastia have become more expansive offensively, and, particularly with the acquisition of Gael Danic, have achieved more of a balance between youth (Alphonse Areola, Francois Kamano) and experience (Sebastien Squillaci, Guillaume Gillet).
While a disinterested display against Lyon mid-week did the Corsican side no favours, the fixture list is more than kind, as a “home” match against Reims beckons this weekend, a win going a long way towards securing their Ligue 1 status at the expense of the Ardenne side.
That said, with matches against Saint-Etienne and Marseille also on the cards, failure to get anything from their next two matches (Reims and Evian) could prove fatal, despite Printant’s good work to date.
Key player: Ryad Boudebouz
Linked with clubs as prestigious as Arsenal during his time at Sochaux, that the Algerian is still with the Corsican club is somewhat of a surprise. His ability to wreak havoc from set pieces and run with the ball at his feet makes a deadly no 10, but, at age 25, many fear that he will never achieve the level of consistency necessary to succeed at a high level.
In many ways, Boudebouz’s season has mirrored Bastia’s in that he can look a world beater one week, only to be more than indifferent the following match. Perhaps there is something of the disinterested to Boudebouz’s game, as he surely must have imagined himself at a place higher up the proverbial ladder than Bastia at this point in his career, but even taking that laissez-faire attitude into account, his sublime talent has no counterpart among his teammates and could easily tip the scales back towards Bastia’s retaining their Ligue 1 status.
Evian TG FC: 36 points, 15th
Always the authors of an unlikely escape, Evian are that bizarre team that just manages to find its level. With a sole victory over Montpellier its only victory over a top-half side this season, having done the double over Lens, Metz and Lorient, Evian will surely welcome a fixture list that features only Lyon and Saint-Etienne higher than 13th. However, even with the likes of Caen, Bastia and Guingamp likely to be disinterested come their meetings with Evian, the absence of on-loan Caen striker Mathieu Duhamel could yet be a problem, as an own goal and a set piece were on the scoresheet in the 2-2 draw with Nice.
More than anything that Duhamel himself as a goal-scoring threat does, however, is the lack of an experienced alternative, as Nicolas Blandi, he of 23 minutes of match time thus far is tipped to get the start if Clarck Niskulu fails to pass match fit. Only a point above the drop and with a similarly poor goal difference to Toulouse and Lorient, Evian could yet find themselves in trouble if the goals don’t materialize.
Key Player: Daniel Wass
Evian’s do-everything Dane has been at it again this season, notching eight goals and four assists in 25 starts. Generally employed further forward this season than in the past, wide on the right of a 4-2-3-1 as opposed to as a right back, this new-found freedom has allowed Wass to be much more of a force in attack this season.
Deadly from free kicks, with incredible range, and just the right balance of size and pace to be likewise a target on set pieces, the multiple options that Wass offers the side have made him the subject of endless transfer speculation, with Stoke City only the latest suitor. His training as a right back holding him in good stead, he is also more than solid defensively, and his ability to turn a match with one free kick make him arguably the most talented attacker in the bottom half of Ligue 1, with Raphael Guerreiro perhaps the only exception. If Evian can continue to call on Wass in the run-in, another great escape is foreseeable for Les Roses.
FC Lorient 35 points, 16th
Never likely to have the easiest time of it after the departure of longtime manager Christian Gourcuff following the conclusion of last season, Lorient have, despite their struggles, become quite the incubator for young talent. With Raphael Guerreiro, Benjamin Lecomte and Benjamin Jeannot all blossoming under new manager Sylvain Ripoll this campaign, a match involving Les Merlus has always made for compelling viewing this season.
However, as is the nature of relying on young talent, the club have, like all of the sides discussed here, struggled to find any sort of consistency. The departure of Vincent Aboubakar has reined in the free-scoring style so prevalent under Gourcuff, but without any development on the defensive end, as Burno Eceule-Manga’s move to Cardiff has also been sorely felt. With three of their remaining matches against European contenders Monaco, Marseille and Bordeaux, a home win against Toulouse has become the very definition of a relegation six-pointer. Not that a win would guarantee their safety, as were it not for the next side, Lorient would be my pick to go down.
Key Player: Romain Philippoteaux
While, with the aforementioned young talent in abundance at Lorient, to pick a 27 year old journeyman winger may seem absurd, Philippoteaux’s potential could yet be the difference for the struggling side. Having notched seven goals and five assists in his half-season with Ligue 2 side Nancy, the diminutive winger’s particular blend of energy and creativity would have been the perfect fit under Gourcuff. However, times have changed at the Moustoir, and, like the majority of his teammates, Philippoteaux just doesn’t seem to have the class required to succeed at this level.
Not for a lack of creative effort, but due to bumping his head against a proverbial ceiling, a player finally “found out” as concerns his potential. That said, though, there is still a small chance that one of Philippoteaux’s tricks comes off against some similarly overmatched opponent (Metz? Nantes?) in the run-in, and that moment of brilliance could just be the difference between promotion and relegation. After all, the potential is there.
Stade de Reims: 35 points, 17th
With only one win in the calendar year, and even that result a somewhat shambolic one, things really can’t have been worse in the aftermath of Hubert Fournier’s departure. Mid-table under Jean-Luc Vasseur until the turn of the year, the departure of key players Prince Oniangue, Benjamin Moukandjo, Aissa Mandi and Odair Fortes due to the Africa Cup of Nations played havoc on an already thin squad.
After countless tactical tweaks, it soon became apparent that more that tactical nous was missing from Vasseur’s locker, and, like Ghislain Printant at Bastia, the youth team manager was promoted in attempt to remedy the situation. With this weekend’s “trip” to Bastia perhaps their best chance to get points among their remaining fixtures, a delayed new manager bounce may be the club’s only hope, especially if things are iffy on the final day ahead of their visit to Paris.
Key Player: Diego Rigonato
A key member of the squad in Reims’ initial return to Ligue 1, but missing for most of last season after having done a cruciate, the Brazilian has probably been Reims’ most consistent attacker. Even that is faint praise, though, as Rigonato’s position on the pitch has often changed, the vagaries of tactical shifts often altering his responsibilities.
That said, though, his goal against Monaco a month ago was only his second of 2015 in the league, and unless he or one of his (mostly younger) teammates can show some determination in attack, Reims are looking the most likely to join the doomed pair of Lens and Metz.
Toulouse FC: 35 points, 18th
Tactically stagnant under Alain Casanova and shorn of their best players (Serge Aurier, Etienne Capoue, etc) in recent memory, the degree to which Toulouse have struggled this season really shouldn’t come as any great surprise. To the casual observer, the strikeforce of Martin Braithwaite and Wissam Ben Yedder seems potent, and didn’t they have a decent defence last year?
Well, yes, and yes, but the defense this year is another story, as a constant shuffling of the back four and goalkeepers have seen the club concede a whopping 52 goals thus far, only one more than last year. While the attacking trio has managed to save the defense’s blushes on more than once occasion, it hasn’t been often enough to keep the club out a trouble, as only struggling Lens and Metz have kept Toulouse from sliding further down the table. Despite their defensive ineptitude, though, Toulouse have a great chance at picking up the points necessary for survival in the near future, as aside from the clash with Lorient, and a trip to Monaco, their other four opponents (Nantes, Lille, Nice and Guingamp) are all essentially safe, and no great shakes themselves in attack, giving Le TFC just enough hope to overhaul Reims.
Key Player: Wissam Ben Yedder
One of Ligue 1’s most prolific strikers in the recent past, the pint-sized Ben Yedder has continued bang in the goals this season for Toulouse. After notching 15 and 16 goals in his last two seasons, he sits on 11 at present, and Lorient’s shaky defense must surely be whetting his appetite. With three goals in his last five matches, including the opener in the derby against Bordeaux, in Ben Yedder, Toulouse have the kind of talismanic player whose willpower and scoring prowess are lacking among their rivals’ ranks, and in these skills lie his club’s chances for survival.