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The Ligue 1 Review – Week 8

Eric Devin and Adam White return with their weekly review of all things Ligue 1.

1 | PSG need to keep playing to Cavani’s strengths…

Edinson Cavani’s wayward form in front of goal this season has been well publicised but what hasn’t been talked about all that much is that, despite this, he already has 13 goals in 11 games for club and country.

Although flashes of his slightly haphazard finishing remain, it is becoming clear that PSG could minimize this by playing to his strengths. Cavani scored both in PSG’s 2-0 win over Bordeaux this weekend and each goal, his first in particular, was a case in point, as have been many of his strikes this season. For, if there’s one thing the Uruguayan has been consistently competent at, it is a headed finish.

In fact his headers are arguably the most aesthetically pleasing in European football; on the run, off the shoulder of a defender, a majestic swing of the forehead, his long hair flying every which way – it’s wonderful to watch.

The opener at Le Parc on Saturday was one such strike. If Cavani is to be prolific for Emery this season, he needs more crosses than through balls. The one-on-one is clearly an area where El Matador lacks composure but it is the type of chance that will be created more often than not by PSG’s current style of build up – waiting for an opening befor busting their opponents open with a killer pass.

For now it might be better to look for an overlap and get balls whipped across the six yard area or fired into the near post for Cavani to attack. His goals in big games against Monaco and Arsenal have come from just this type of assist and they’ll keep coming if Emery looks to give him the chances. – A.W.

2 | Montpellier’s High Press Success

It would be folly to suggest that Montpellier playing a 4-3-1-2 was anything other than an effort to give additional protection to a back four missing Daniel Congré. William Remy has played centre back on the odd occasion, but since joining from Dijon he is more at home as a defensive midfielder.

In fact, against a Dijon side who have looked much sharper with Lois Diony on his own up top, having Morgan Sanson, Yacouba Sylla and Ellyes Shkiri to screen Remy and the aging Hilton made the most sense, ensuring La Paillade wouldn’t be outnumbered in midfield.

Ryad Boudebouz was then tasked with linking play from midfield, the full-backs encouraged to attack and the two strikers were left to their own devices, playing a high press to put pressure on Dijon’s centre backs.

Casimir Ninga’s goals will get the headlines, but he and Steve Mounié consistently harassed Cedric Varrault and Adam Lang, and Dijon’s ability to build from the back through they and Mehdi Abeid was badly hampered.

Two own goals and a heartbreaking equalizer denied Montpellier what would have been just their second win of the campaign. However, this formation should play dividends in the longer term, especially as it allows greater attacking involvement from Morgan Sanson, whose dynamism is essential for the team to be at their best.

With Sylla and Shkiri acting as a safety valve, the former Le Mans player can bomb on, and his two assists showed just how potent he can be in that role. Congre’s return to fitness and the arrival of Stephane Sessegnon will give Frederic Hantz more depth to continue to pursue his experimentations, but for now, in playing needs must, the manager may have just found the ideal solution. – E.D.

 3 | Wide men to be the key for Gourcuff at Rennes?

Paul Georges Ntep and Kamil Grosicki have seen less game time than their talents warrant in recent seasons at Rennes.

Ntep’s upward trajectory by virtue of his excellent form in the 2014/15 season, which saw him become arguably the side’s most important player and had him linked with a number of top clubs, Liverpool most notably, was last season cruelled halted by a series of injuries.

Ntep struggled to find his form and his fitness all year, every time he returned to the side and was on the verge of regaining the match sharpness that he needed to terrorise full backs across France, another injury would reset the process.

But now with 4 starts in a row, Ntep and his fitness are returning. His display on Friday night in Rennes’ 1-0 over Guingamp will give Gourcuff hope that his prize asset is now finally on the mend. Grosicki meanwhile regularly affected games last season but a large percentage of these positive displays came off the bench, making the Polish winger something of a supersub.

His talents are undoubted. On his day Grosicki is one of the most direct, tricky and creative wide men in the division and, like Ntep, is capable of terrorising any Ligue defence.

After a run in the side at the end of last season and the new manager looking to make him a key part of his first 11 this term, Grosicki has the chance to impose himself on Ligue 1 in 2016/17.

His assist for the only goal of the game against Guingamp proved to be a productive start, despite his penalty miss.

If Gourcuff can somehow keep both men fit and firing over the course of the campaign, Rennes will be a tough prospect for the other 19 clubs in the French top flight and they will have their sights set on bettering last year’s 8th place finish. – A.W.

4 | Stepinski steps up for Nantes

Shudders must have surely run down the spines of supporters at the Beaujoire Saturday evening as Nantes’ teamsheet revealed a 4-4-2 that harkened back to the darkest days of the opprobrium the club earned under Michel der Zakarian.

After a mid-week press conference in which he lashed out a reporter and rumours that Rolland Courbis was being sounded out as his replacement, manager Rene Girard was surely under pressure, and there would be doubts that this particular formation would be best-suited to unlock the always-combative visitors.

Bastia were at their obdurate best, but Nantes sailed to a 1-0 that was more comfortable than the scoreline would suggest, despite Remy Riou being forced into several fine saves.

The formation was, to a degree, forced by the absence of Valentin Rongier, out with a broken nose, but it also saw another step in the development of summer arrival Mariusz Stepinski, whose presence is becoming a tonic for Nantes.

The club have struggled with the centre forward position of late, despite the ballyhooed signings of the likes of Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Emiliano Sala, their defensive solidity undone by an anemic attack.

Those two, as well as Yacine Bammou, are archetypal strikers in their physicality and power. Although Stepinski is six feet tall, he is much more blessed with pace than the alternatives, as his wrongly disallowed goal in the early stages showed.

If he can continue to use his speed as an outlet for the likes of Amine Harit, with Bammou or Sala providing the aerial balance, there may yet be something to be gained by playing the supposedly archaic formation. -E.D.

5 | Is the idea of Toulouse challenging for Europe so abstract after all?

In the 18 games since the inspirational Pascal Dupraz took charge of Les Violets, the narrow 1-0 loss to Caen (an unfortunate penalty decision against the hand of Francois Moubandje, chipped home by Santini) was only their fourth defeat.

The 9 wins, 5 draws and 32 points (in what is a game shy of a half league season) have taken them from 10 points adrift of safety to 4th in the division and, justifiably, beating PSG last weekend.

Last season Nice finished fourth, automatically qualifying for the Europa League group stages, with 63 points. Toulouse’s form under Dupraz, should it continue, puts them past this total. Granted, this was a relatively low threshold due to the topsy-turvy league season in 2015/16, OM finished in the same spot the previous season with 6 more points, level with ASSE in 5th.

One could argue that all the necessary ingredients are in place. Alban Lafont is developing into one of the best keepers in the league. The Diop – Jullien central defensive partnership is proving incredibly solid. Their midfield appears capable of both protecting the back four as well as creating chances.

The on-form trio of Braithwaite, Durmaz and Toivonen are converting those chances. And with Dupraz’s forceful, inspirational optimism, the Europa League might be closer than they think. – A.W.

6 | Corentin Tolisso takes to the wing

Corentin Tolisso’s role in Lyon’s team was the subject of some trepidation as the season began; many wondered if his near-move to Napoli had unsettled the academy product, whether his focus would be as sharp as it has been.

Nearly two months on and all doubts should be well and truly settled, though, as he has been easily the team’s most consistent performer, the team riding out the injuries to Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette to a decent degree of success.

However, his success has come in a central role, either playing off Maxwel Cornet, as he did against Dinamo Zagreb, or as a central midfielder, as he generally does.

The suggestion that he would be played as a right wing-back against Saint-Etienne left some sense of unease, that his spectacular influence (particularly his ability to head the ball) would be wasted in wide areas.

Such fears rapidly dissipated however, as Tolisso was arguably Lyon’s man of the match.

While he is not as adept a crosser as Rafael, the man whose injury sparked the change, his directness and ability to keep the ball gave Lyon superb balance. Maciej Rybus was solid on the other flank, and Lyon looked a much more complete side than they had against Sevilla midweek.

Granted, an injury-hit Saint-Etienne weren’t the stiffest test, but Anthony Lopes still had to be sharp on several occasions to keep the visitors at bay.

Rafael’s status is still a doubt for massive matches against Nice and Juventus after the international break, and should the Brazilian be unable to feature, manager Bruno Genesio should persist with what had been seen as a desperate decision. – E.D.

7 | Who will stop AS Monaco?

PSG’s 9-0 thrashing of Troyes last season was a rare event. Not only in the outlandish scoreline but also in the respect that it was almost an outright statement of the gap in quality in the French top flight at the time.

PSG weren’t scintillating by any means but ran in their nine goals with relative ease. They were just too good. Normally these high scoring games are freak results (Nice’s 7-2 win at Guingamp in 14/15 for example) or come with some caveat such 3 or 4 very late goals to flatter the winners, and in a league where goals are often difficult to come by these type of maulings are rare.

But Monaco proved on Saturday night that, as arguably PSG’s closest challengers longer term, they too are capable of tearing teams apart in the way their Parisen rivals have in the last few seasons.

The 4-1 win at Lille last month an early sighter, they showed that the quality at their disposal, despite the mid week Champions League fixture, far outweighed that of Philippe Hinschberger’s side, making Cheick Doukoure’s dismissal immaterial.

It was easy for Monaco, the nature to which they cantered to the win tippified by a brace from the wayward Guido Carrillo.

After a promising start to the Champions League campaign, an imperious opening to the Ligue 1 season and the return of Germain and Falcao, Monaco are slowly becoming a force both in France and on the continent once again.

Jardim should be aiming for trophies in 16/17 rather than simply challenging on a number of fronts, his Monaco side are the real deal. – A.W.

8 | What if Bouna Sarr was Marseille’s answer?

Given the reputation that both Florian Thauvin and Remy Cabella have as creative presences, it was a bit surprising to see Bouna Sarr deployed centrally for Marseille on their trip to Angers on Sunday.

The team, in the absence of Clinton N’Jie, opted to play a 4-2-3-1, with Bafetimbi Gomis on his own up top and the two former Newcastle players on the wings. Sarr was one of the better players on a poor Metz team two seasons ago, and when Les Grenats inevitably went down, he moved to Marseille.

Last season, he was largely ignored by Michel, making just nine starts in the league, with Georges-Kevin N’Koudou preferred.

Now, however, he has been used more regularly by Franck Passi, and although his contributions may not always be reflected on the scoresheet, his energy has done much to set the tone for a team that are still learning to work with each other after the summer’s raft of changes.

Against an in-form Angers, that energy was on display in fine fashion, his darting runs doing much to pull the hosts’ defenders about to create space for Thauvin and Cabella.

Thauvin’s goal was a remarkable solo effort, but Sarr’s run to the flank was just enough to distract Yoann Andreu as he sought to chase the winger infield.

Marseille will likely return to a 4-4-2 with N’Jie partnering Gomis upon the Tottenham loanee’s return, but for now, Sarr’s contributions shouldn’t go unnoticed. – E.D.

9 | Magic Mario

86 minutes, Balotelli goal. 87 minutes Balotelli booking. 90 minutes Balotelli sent off. The final four minutes of Sunday’s encounter between Lorient and Nice at the Allianz Riviera summed up Mario Balotelli’s career in three simple steps.

Firstly the sublime: his deft faint inside Zargo Toure and Steven Moreira, selling the Lorient centre back and his colleague a neat dummy before whipping his right foot shot inside Benjamin Lecomte’s upright with nonchalant ease was classic Super Mario, of his Inter and early City days.

Then came the frustrating: the goal won the game and in the celebrations, Balotelli saw fit, despite his wealth of experience across the continent, to rip off his shirt. Yellow card. At the time, annoying but forgivable. But three minutes later with the game seemingly beyond Sylvain Ripoll’s Lorient, came the utterly bizarre.

The Italian, keeping the ball in the corner and away from Moreira was incongruously awarded his second booking for what seemed to be little more than a piercing stare at his opponent.

As the Lorient right back, who was also booked, cleared the ball for a throw the two men may have brushed shoulders or thought about squaring up to each other, either way the referee saw fit to book them both and send Balotelli off.

Does his reputation preceded him? Perhaps. With Balotelli’s second yellow card likely to be rescinded by the LFP on Thursday at the weekly disciplinary committee meeting, the weekend will serve as a reminder to the Italian, rather than as a punishment to Nice who face Lyon next. – A.W.

10 | Problems remain aplenty for Lille despite win

Lille earned a badly needed, if somewhat fortuitous win over Nancy on Saturday, 1-0. Sebastien Corchia and his fellow fullback Julian Palmieri were at the heart of much of Lille’s attack, as they have been for most of the season.

Rony Lopes, deployed centrally in a 4-2-3-1, also had a decent match, but even watching the highlights, Lille’s problems were easily exposed. Time and again, the “chances” created by Lille were long shots, from the edge of the area or even further away, and Nancy ‘keeper Guy N’Dy Assembe was rarely troubled.

There is no doubt that Lille miss Nicolas de Preville, whose arrival from Reims was meant to offset the departure of Sofiane Boufal, was a miss, and fellow summer signing Naim Sliti has yet to make an impact, remaining on the bench on Saturday.

These injuries are an issue, to be sure, but the basic fact is that Lille are failing to let play develop in the final third.

Rather than using the runs of Palmieri and Corchia to develop the attack on the wings, using through balls and movement to stretch play, Lille too often resort to shooting at goal as soon as there is sight of it.

Against a massed Nancy playing a 5-4-1, there is some small justification, but this impetuousness is continually proving to be the undoing of a talented set of attackers.

Lille are unlikely to go down come the season’s end, no matter their current position, but if they want to provide their supporters with a less arduous season, patience must become a virtue. – E.D.

Team of the Week: Stephane Ruffier, AS Saint-Etienne; Ricardo Pereira, OGC Nice, Kamil Glik, AS Monaco, Damien da Silva, SM Caen, Layvin Kurzawa, Paris Saint-Germain; Morgan Sanson, Montpellier HSC, Fabinho, AS Monaco, Sergi Darder, Olympique Lyonnais, Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco; Edinson Cavani, Paris Saint-Germain, Casimir Ninga, Montpellier HSC.

Goal of the Week: Mario Balotelli, OGC Nice.

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