1 | Tousart Steps Up
Against one of their most hated rivals and at the Velodrome, Lyon were always set for a difficult time, the last two of these matches ending in bitter stalemates irrespective of the club’s positions in the table.
Already hamstrung by injuries, the club’s situation was made even worse last weekend as a horror challenge from the normally reliable captain Maxime Gonalons resulted in a four-match ban. The youngster Lucas Tousart had replaced him in central midfield after a head injury against Dinamo Zagreb, and done fairly well in an experimental 3-5-1-1.
It is one thing to perform in a match at home when your side is thoroughly in control, but it is quite another to do the same away against Marseille. L’OM are far from taking the title of Lyon’s most bitter rivals from Saint-Etienne, but this fixture has been marked by considerable trouble in the recent past, and the atmosphere would certainly be an intimidating one.
Unfazed by this, France’s U-19 captain turned in a nearly flawless performance, ceaselessly breaking up play in midfield and also doing well to provide cover for the three centre backs.
He also showed good initiative going forward, and except for a booking for a poor challenge on William Vainqueur, he readily demonstrated that Lyon need not worry over their captain’s absence. With the fixtures coming thick and fast, the youngster’s maturity will continue to be tested, but on the early evidence, he looks more than up to the challenge –ED
2 | Can Cavani Make PSG Dominant Again?
Edinson Cavani’s form had become so poor and his finishing so wayward that during the Champions League game with Arsenal, certain media outlets were referring to clear missed chances as a ‘Cavani’.
A little harsh perhaps, but the sheer volume of openings squandered by the Uruguayan had become a touch ridiculous. Metz, Arsenal and Monaco are all key beneficiaries from his bizarre run; Arsenal and Monaco with crucial points in big games, Metz in avoiding a thrashing.
When El Matador snatched at a chance, screwing the ball wide early on Friday night, Caen might have been thinking points could be coming their way, but they were mistaken.
By half-time it was 4-0, Cavani had a haul and Caen were fearing the hiding Metz deserved in Paris a month earlier. Despite PSG’s shortcomings so far under Emery, the team proved that as long as they have someone who can put the ball away on a regular basis, they are still by far the best side in Ligue 1.
If Cavani’s goal-scoring continues, the other 19 clubs could be in serious trouble as PSG’s quality is still supreme and with the number 9 subbed at half time, Patrice Garande might be secretly glad with just the ‘6’ in the goals against column. –AW
3 | Durmaz Gives Toulouse Needed Class
Toulouse have fallen on hard times in the recent past, only scraping survival by the skin of their teeth last season. This summer saw the departure of striker Wissam Ben Yedder, perhaps the key figure in the club’s retaining their status, and most pundits (including this one) were ready to see the team end their campaign below the dotted line.
There had been some arrivals, to be fair, the young defender Christophe Jullien and PSG loanee Odsonne Edouard providing some hope, but the nominal replacement for Ben Yedder, Ola Toivonen, seemed an uninspired signing. To say that things have exceeded expectations thus far would be an understatement.
Martin Braithwaite has thrived as the attack’s focal point, with four goals in as many matches, and the club will feel unlucky to not be unbeaten, a late free kick winner at Bastia the only blemish on their record. But could things improve even further for Pascal Dupraz’s charges? Saturday’s gritty win at home to ten-man Guingamp saw a full debut for Swedish international Jimmy Durmaz.
Like his countryman, Pierre Bengtsson of Bastia, a change of scenery could be a real tonic for the tricky winger. Out of favour at Olympiakos, Durmaz joined Toulouse for €2m in the summer, and was given his first start this weekend. Injuries to Somalia and Oscar Trejo certainly played their part, but the Swede impressed.
His goal was a bit fortuitous, but his ability to get at defenders on the dribble or deliver a cross from either wing makes him the type of creative presence the club have sorely lacked.
Lille today and Paris Saint-Germain on Friday will likely offer sterner tests than at the weekend, but Durmaz seems a player with something to prove, and his motivation should do well for both himself and Les Violets‘ hopes of staying up. -ED
4 | Moukandjo Lorient’s Best Hope
Lorient survived by 7 points last season, their early season run of form accounting for the wiggle room that was afforded between themselves and the trap door down to Ligue 2 come May.
These early season points can be largely accounted for by Benjamin Moukandjo, with 13 strikes in all, 11 coming before mid November. Moukandjo’s autumn purple patch arguably kept them up and with a severely weakened squad and no replacements on the horizon until the January window, Sylvain Ripoll may have no choice but to rely on his rangey front man once again.
With Majeed Waris surprisingly dropped for the visit of Lille, the Cameroonian forward returned to his favoured central role, rather than the right sided midfield position he had been favoured in previously: the difference both for Moukandjo and Lorient was stark. In a dire game, the Lorient number 12 was possibly the only bright spark and the only likely source of goals for either side.
His opposite number, Eder, was anonymous, Antonetti saying after the game that he made a mistake in bringing him back so quickly after the European Championships.
Although Moukandjo wasn’t able to see off the game from open play, his calm penalty (after a criminal handball decision from the referee) showed that his confidence and scoring touch is returning. Could another burst of form could be on the horizon? -AW
5 | Traore’s Versatility Key for Busy Monaco
Two years ago, Adama Traore was an unknown player, struggling to make an impact in Lille’s first team after joining from Malian side AS Bakiridjan. He slowly but surely proved his worth over that season, becoming if not a regular starter, then certainly an important piece.
The summer saw his stock increase dramatically as he won the Golden Ball at the U-20 World Cup, and subsequently earned a move to AS Monaco. His arrival in the principality was greeted with no small amount of excitement, but his inclusion into Leonardo Jardim’s plans was far from smooth.
He was given a handful of appearances early in the season, but he faced increased competition in the form of Chelsea loanee Mario Pasalic and Helder Costa from Benfica. Not only this, but Traore’s situation was further complicated by a serious ankle injury that ended his season in October.
Now fully fit, Traore and his versatility may be the glue that holds Monaco’s season together, especially as fixture congestion starts to rear its ugly head. Last season, Traore’s few appearances were often as a central midfielder, a gambit on the part of his manager but one which made good use of his wiry strength and dribbling ability.
With Mali, he was used wide on the left or as a no 10, but against Rennes, he was deployed on the right in a 4-4-2.
Full-back Almamy Touré is given to bomb forward, (and Djibril Sidibé is similarly disposed) and in Traore, Jardim may have found his replacement for the injured Nabil Dirar, whose workrate was so integral to the club’s early season success. Dirar is certain to reclaim his spot when fit, but Traore can offer a similar doggedness in the interim.
His effectiveness in these different roles certainly varies, but his effort doesn’t, meaning he can be a capable stand-in at as many as five positions.
AS Monaco seek to negotiate two competitions successfully in the next month or so, this versatility will be of paramount importance as Jardim looks to maximize his players’ fitness ahead of key fixtures. -ED
6 | Have the Angers of Old Returned?
Angers achieved the remarkable feat of breaching the Champions’ League places over the winter break a year ago through hewing to three key principles; defending as a team, keeping the ball in midfield and snatching goals from set pieces or counter attacks.
The second half of the season saw their form slowly deteriorate as important players were sold on, goals dried up and other sides started to figure them out. However, after a slow start this year, with their squad replenished, no further big name losses and their solid base returning in their last few outings, Stephane Moulin’s side are starting to resemble the team which stormed up to the table upon promotion from Ligue 2 last year.
Since the lacklustre defeat at home to Metz, Angers’ form has been completely revitalised; an impressive 3-1 win over Dijon (despite a sending off) and an assured, confident win at Bordeaux have been accompanied by Romain Thomas and Ismael Traore returning to their best.
The team has been further buoyed by the addition of the excellent debutant Mateo Pavlovic this weekend, joined by Thomas Magani and Cheikh N’Doye taking the game by its shirt collar and refusing to let go with the forwards (Toko-Ekambi in particular) coming up with the goals to nudge their side in front.
Here’s to hoping that Moulin’s charges can maintain their resurgence and once again give their more illustrious counterparts something of a bloody nose. –AW
7 | It’s Not About Balotelli
The biggest news ahead of Nice’s trip to Montpellier wasn’t that of renewing a rivalry between the two south coast teams. It wasn’t the return to fitness of Mathieu Bodmer, nor the form of the hosts’ brilliant playmaker, Ryad Boudebouz.
It was, rather, the absence from Lucien Favre’s match day squad of Mario Balotelli, the temperamental Italian striker whose move to Nice had once again brought the club into the limelight, much as the similarly outcast Hatem Ben Arfa had a year ago.
Balotelli had started and played 90 minutes twice in the week, against Marseille in the league and against Schalke in Europe. With one eye on Ligue 1’s round of midweek fixtures, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, especially given the Italian’s lack of match fitness.
It was, however, especially for English language media, owing to the player’s infamy from his stints at Manchester City and Liverpool. But Nice’s brilliant start to the season isn’t down to the Italian, despite his brace against Marseille, and nowhere was this more clearly underlined than by Younes Belhanda’s equalizer against La Paillade.
Nice have a fine goalkeeper, good full-backs, exciting central midfielders, and in Balotelli and Alassane Plea, two decent centre forwards. All that is missing, then, is a player to knit things together, as Ben Arfa had done last season, and this is where Belhanda comes in.
His first 100 minutes of action for Nice have yielded an assist and a goal, and while it would be foolhardy to think he can sustain this level of performance, perhaps it is he, and not Balotelli, that should be looked at as Les Aiglons‘ best bit of summer business.
Nominally an attacking midfielder, but more correctly an undersized goalscorer, the Dynamo Kiev loanee plays the position similarly to Ben Arfa. He is more physically robust and not quite as skilled a dribbler, but like Ben Arfa at Nice last year, he has always thrived when given the freedom to attack, seeking to score rather than to be the archetypal no 10 and create for his teammates.
This is not to say that Belhanda is a selfish player ahead of his team’s needs, but rather that he knows when to rely on himself. Ben Arfa had a great deal of success operating in a similar mode last season, and coupled with a group of energetic young midfielders willing to provide him a platform.
If Nice are to progress in the Europa League and battle once again for the Champions’ League, the smart money should be on Belhanda, not Balotelli as the key figure in the team’s success. -ED
8 | Lucas Lima’s Sublime Start at Nantes
With the loss of Youssouf Sabaly and Lorik Cana this summer, Nantes’ defence, the strongest area of the side was looking somewhat depleted at the start of the Girard reign but with a pair of astute signings from Portugal, the void has been quickly filled.
Diego Carlos has started his Nantes career steadily alongside Oswaldo Vizcarrondo at the heart of the back four, a partnership that only conceded twice in three games before Carlos’ groin issue, despite the poor start from the squad in general. But Carlos continues to be surpassed by his Brazilian counterpart, left back Lucas Lima, signed from Arouca this summer.
Lima is defensively sound, confident and reliable on the ball, possesses a great first touch and has quickly become Girard’s go to man when in need of pinpoint, pacey deliveries both from dead ball situations and in open play.
Lima is aggressive and direct with the ability to dangerously prowl along the touchline efficiently and effectively at both ends of the pitch for the full 90 minutes. His impact has been a rare bright spot in Girard’s early weeks but, should he keep this form up, Lima’s stay may end up being a short one. -AW
9 | Sainté’s Quest Continues
Now a stalwart among Ligue 1 managers, Christophe Galtier has forged one of the division’s most consistent teams in his time at Saint-Etienne. The club have repeatedly qualified for European competition, but never the Champions’ League.
There were near misses in 2014-15 (two points) and 2012-13, (four points, with superior goal difference to the teams ahead of them) but access to Europe’s top club competition has never happened.
Always defensively sound, the club have lacked consistent attacking threats to balance a solid back line. On the rare occasions in the recent past that one of their attackers has found form, (Max Gradel, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) the club becomes a real force, often going on lengthy unbeaten runs to rise up the table.
The issue, of course is that when these attackers perform so well, they tend to catch the eye of teams abroad, and are lured away by the promise of bigger wages and a higher level of competition.
Replacements are brought in, as they have been this summer. Henri Saivet, Jordan Veretout and Bryan Dabo all can have their moments going forward, but is any of them really what the team need, given that Fabien Lemoine, Vincent Pajot, Jeremy Clement and Ole Selnaes are also central midfielders of a decent standard?
The answer is a decided no; against Bastia on Sunday evening, the hosts badly struggled to break down the Corsicans and needed a an inspired cameo from Romain Hamouma to make the difference.
Hamouma can be electric, but the club’s league placement is the perfect illustration of the danger of relying on him to be the catalyst in attack.
After eight assists two years ago, he delivered only three last year. The young Dutch-Moroccan Oussama Tannane looked set to offer Hamouma competition on the back of a strong start after arriving from Dutch side Heracles, but has since accumulated more bookings than goals and assists.
Given the club were obviously a popular destination and able to afford to take on players who had previously been on Premier League wages in Veretout and Saivet, should their focus not have been more on creative players? The team have scored just three goals in their last five matches, and aside from Hamouma, no one looks capable of creating anything for Robert Beric or Nolan Roux.
A win against Bastia should never be easily dismissed, but in the absence of another creative player, will Les Verts once again end the season bemoaning an uneven transfer policy? -ED
10 | Didillon and Areola Give French Goalkeeping a Bright Future
With Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda among its ranks, Didier Deschamps’ squad is well stocked for top class goalkeeping talent and although both men still have many seasons at the top of the European game ahead of them at 29 and 31 respectively, it may not be long until they have a new generation of guardians breathing down their necks.
Unai Emery’s decision to keep Areola, at 23, in Paris for the season after superb loan spells at Bastia and Villarreal, likely as PSG’s long term number 1, sees him lead the queue of youthful French goalkeeping gems.
In the south of Spain he proved repeatedly to have the wide-ranging skill set to be a starting ‘keeper at one of Europe’s top clubs; shot-stopping, handling, concentration and command of his area; only one of which his German counterpart, Kevin Trapp, can claim to have in sufficient quantities.
But perhaps the Parisian stopper could also come under threat from Les Espoirs’ first choice, Metz’s Thomas Didillon. Didillon, just twenty, has adapted to Ligue 1 wonderfully well after a standout season in Ligue 2.
He is confident, commanding and supremely solid, yet to make a mistake, his penalty save at Dijon on Saturday night to keep the sides level proving that he can pull off world class stops at the crucial moments. By the time Russia 2018 rolls around, Deschamps may be spoilt for choice. –AW
Team of the Week:
Thomas Didillon, FC Metz; Almamy Touré, AS Monaco, Marquinhos, Paris Saint-Germain, Tomas Hubocan, Olympique de Marseille, Maxwell, Paris Saint-Germain; Adrien Rabiot, Paris Saint-Germain, Lucas Tousart, Olympique Lyonnais, Younes Belhanda, OGC Nice; Lucas Moura, Paris Saint-Germain, Edinson Cavani, Paris Saint-Germain, Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco.
Goal of the Week:
Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco