Marseille’s 4-2 win at Nice was a somewhat calamitous affair, riddled with poor defending and punctuated by the sending off of midfielder Luiz Gustavo. The intensity, only to be expected for one of Ligue 1’s bigger rivalries, was increased by crowd trouble during the match, including fans brawling in the stands and objects being thrown onto the pitch.
None of this is anything new in France, particularly in a derby match, but the result, which lifted Marseille into third place, is perhaps more important than the circumstances of the match. Not, as one might have hoped in looking at the league table, as a validation of Marseille owner Frank McCourt’s “Champions Project,” but as a clear indictment of the paucity of, if not quality, certainly consistency that this year’s edition of Ligue 1 appears to be offering.
Right behind Marseille, with their clutch of high-profile, albeit aging names, sit Nantes and Caen, a pair of clubs whose summer windows featured a distinct lack of recognisable names. This is not an affront to either of those sides; Nantes’ defensive organization under Claudio Ranieri, combined with the class of Ciprian Tatarusanu in goal have allowed Les Canaris to be a consistently stubborn opponent, allowing just two goals in their last seven matches.
Caen have taken that edict even further, a somewhat surprising turn given how open manager Patrice Garande’s sides usually are, winning five of six behind the league’s best defence. Both have admittedly also been helped by the fixture computer, and one would do well to recall Angers’ fine start to the 2015-16 season as proof of the sustainability of these sorts of teams in the division.
The teams that most pundits, present company included, expected to thrive this season, however, have been woefully inconsistent. Along with Marseille and their opponent yesterday evening, Lyon, Saint-Étienne and Bordeaux all invested heavily this summer, knowing that turnover at Monaco and Nice would be leaving one, or potentially two Champions’ League spots up for grabs. Monaco, despite a frustrating draw against Montpellier on Friday, look no closer to relinquishing a spot in the top two even after the summer’s roster churn. Thus, barring a precipitous fall by the champions, five sides are now set to square off for third place, a battle that looks to be made all the more intriguing by their flaws, which all showed off at the weekend.
Bordeaux had entered matchday 8 as one of two unbeaten sides in Ligue 1, and of all the European contenders to suffer a setback at the weekend, they had perhaps the least about which to complain, losing 6-2 to an irresistible Paris Saint-Germain. There have been some limp attacking displays, such as in the scoreless draw at Lille, but generally, behind the inspired play of Malcom and the dynamism of Younousse Sankharé, their attack has looked fairly impressive.
What had seemed a thin defensive corps was bolstered by the late arrival of the Brazilian Otávio from Atletico Paranaense. His range of passing and ability in the tackle have impressed thus far, allowing the veteran Jérémy Toulalan to transition to a new role in central defence. The team still looks suspect in the fullback positions with Milan Gajic injured and Diego Contento exiled from the first team; the bulky Igor Lewczuk was forced to fill in on Saturday when Youssouf Sabaly went off injured, but Bordeaux are still decently well-positioned, especially without European football, and could be considered the marginal favourite for third.
Bordeaux’s issues with depth pale in comparison to those faced by Lyon, though. After selling the experienced quartet of Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Mathieu Valbuena and Maxime Gonalons in the summer, club president Jean-Michel Aulas made a decisive investment in younger players, following on from his January purchase of Memphis Depay. Midfielder Tanguy N’Dombélé, striker Mariano Diaz, attacker Bertrand Traoré and fullbacks Ferland Mendy and Kenny Tete look decent enough, but Lyon already appear stretched by their European efforts.
Houssem Aouar has come through the academy to look a good option in attack, but Lyon, after taking an undeserving 3-1 lead at Angers, looked dead on their feet in conceding two second-half goals to only draw, albeit with ten men. Similar results against Bordeaux and Dijon have seen Les Gones drop six points from winning positions in the league, and one has to question the club’s rotation and substitution policies, which seem to be undermining what looks a capable enough side going forward.
Saint-Étienne are still playing the inventive, attacking football for which they were lauded in this space a month ago, but have been undone by poor discipline and a failure to be clinical in their finishing. Three of their last four matches have seen Les Verts playing with ten men at full time; with only one point from those three, the team have slipped slowly down the table as a result, with yesterday’s early match the latest setback.
Mamadou Samassa played a fine match in goal for hosts Troyes, but the visitors’ consolation marked just their third goal from open play in their last five. Summer signing Loïs Diony has failed to click with his teammates, and while there is optimism over the creativity that Rémy Cabella can potentially add to the side, Oscar Garcia’s positive approach could see Sainté spinning their wheels without a bona-fide finisher.
Nice, meanwhile, have been every bit as maddening as the other sides mentioned, going from a stylish, brilliant, counter-attacking side that we saw in the opening stages yesterday to a clumsy, incoherent unit incapable of stopping even a middling attack. Granted, Malang Sarr deputising for the suspended Christophe Jallet at left back was never going to pay dividends, there was more culpability in the squad aside from the teenager.
Yoan Cardinale was clumsy in goal, Alassane Pléa took a poor penalty and even the normally solid Jean Michäel Seri was found wanting at time. Lucien Favre is a capable enough manager, but is faced with limited options, and with six sides between Les Aiglons and their southern neighbors in third, theirs is perhaps the hardest road.
What, then of Marseille themselves? McCourt’s penchant for veteran players has been mocked in many corners, given the wealth of young talent France has regularly been producing in the recent past, but on the night, his strategy may have shown the way forward. Going down 2-0, away to a rival who rarely lose at home would have been a death sentence for many sides, but Marseille kept their resolve, and earned a deserved win. Captain Steve Mandanda, who looks back to his best after an injury lay-off was effusive in his praise for his teammates in his post-match comments.
“The beginning of the match was difficult because we were quickly losing 2-0. But even playing from behind, we showed character, looking for the equaliser, and the goal just before half-time did us a lot of good. We were able to be solid, even with ten. We did concede a lot of chances but everyone put forth a good effort, working for each other and we were rewarded with a good victory tonight.”
An objective party might not be so effusive in their praise of Marseille, but one has to concede that, as their fellow top-three contenders are equally in flux, personnel-wise, l’OM‘s collective experience could yet be beneficial. The team still has a good number of younger players in key positions, with Lucas Ocampos’ double underscoring that on the evening, and Jordan Amavi beginning to look more comfortable at left back. Clinton N’Jie has taken an unlikely turn as a lone striker to lead the team with five goals, and Florian Thauvin continues to impress as well. None of that quartet is older than 24, and all are vastly experienced for their age, having been regulars in the 2014-15 season, or even earlier in Thauvin’s case.
Whether it’s Marseille’s experience, Saint-Étienne’s collective brilliance, or Lyon’s youth movement, whoever captures third place in Ligue 1 this season will be a flawed side. Lacking in quality in one aspect or another, none of these teams can have any real hope of making a Monaco-like splash in next year’s Champions’ League, should they even be able to advance through the playoffs. In the meantime, as Sunday’s results (fifteen goals in three matches) showed, that doesn’t mean that the chase can’t be entertaining. With that in mind, we should revel in what looks to be an increasingly madcap battle to be the league’s third-best as each side’s deficiencies continue to make for highly entertaining football.
1 | Since the arrival of Kylian Mbappé and Neymar for, eventually, a combined €400m PSG’s plethora of attackers already ensconced at the Parc des Princes have looked a little overawed. Angel Di Maria was quiet in August before his injury, Lucas Moura has been on the fringes of the team while Julian Draxler has seemed a little sheepish despite being afforded significant game time in starting 4 of the last 6. However, as the German showed with a superb display in PSG 6-2 thumping of Bordeaux, his confidence renewed in recent games, the second wave of Paris forwards remain supremely talented and capable of making the difference for Unai Emery.
Draxler’s display was capped when he poached possession inside his own half, lending the ball to Mbappé who’s dinked cross was empathically rounded off with a graceful volley at climax of a sweeping counter to put PSG, ludicrously, 5-1 up before half time. They may have been overlooked amid the furore of Mbappé and Neymar’s arrivals but Di Maria, Draxler, Lucas and Javier Pastore remain match winners in their own right and, with some deft man-management from Emery, could yet prove pivotal to Parisian success this season.
2 | After Nantes opened the season with a pair meek defeats and a largely unsuccessful scattergun transfer window, Claudio Ranieri’s fledgling reign at the Stade de la Beaujoire seemed to be edging toward the Greece rather than the Leicester end of his managerial spectrum. However, Les Canaris end week eight in the final Champions’ League place after give wins in six and only one goal conceded in that time. Ranieri has emphasised the drilling and organisation of his defence, using his previous Ligue 1 experience to good effect.
In a division where goals are often at a premium, for a side like Nantes a solid base can prove crucial as Ranieri’s side have illustrated in grinding out narrow victories. Four of those five wins have been 1-0 while their overall record reads just six goals for and five against in eight games. Although Ranieri’s side are not the fierce, all-action attacking outfit fans would have hoped for after Sergio Conceição’s brief yet glorious spell in charge, ‘1-0 to the Canaries’ is phrase those supporters will hope to hear many more times between now and May with a Europa League spot now centred in their crosshairs.
3 | Lille’s visit to promoted Amiens was abandoned on Saturday night amid distressing scenes as a barrier at the front of the away supporters section collapsed leaving four fans seriously injured and another 24 also hurt. As Fode Ballo-Touré’s goal gave Marcelo Bielsa’s side the lead, fans surged to the front of the raised away stand in celebration. The resulting crush forced the barrier to buckle and break and a group of roughly 40 fans fell the meter or so to pitch level.
The LFP stated that the recent refurbishment of the Stade de la Licorne was also not the cause, General Manager Didier Quillot telling L’Équipe the “stadium was approved by the Federation and League Commission” and they have launched an inquiry into the incident. Thankfully, all injured fans have now been able to leave hospital. Whatever the causes, this raises the issue of standing areas in French football. The sight of swathes of supporters rushing to the front of terraces after a goal is a common one in Ligue 1 where older standing sections, now banned in English grounds and nowhere near as regimented as the safe-standing areas used in Scotland, are equally common.
The relatively low numbers of travelling LOSC fans was fortunate as the resulting crush feasibly could have been much worse and the LFP should now seriously consider overhauling their regulations and the continued presence of similar standing areas across French football to help prevent this situation arising again.
4 | As PSG routed Bordeaux on Saturday afternoon, a 3-0 lead established with ease inside 21 minutes, who would take any subsequent PSG penalty became the only aspect of the encounter, along with whether PSG could reach double figures, that remained unclear. The childish spat between Neymar and Edinson Cavani that flared up during the win over Lyon two weeks ago had yet to be resolved. Since then Neymar had apologised to the squad after the two men had to be separated by Thiago Silva in the dressing room after the visit of OL, whilst the Uruguayan supposedly had been offered a huge bonus by the PSG board to hand over penalty duties to his South American counterpart.
Despite Cavani being the traditional Parisien penalty taker, it was Neymar who made it four from the spot on 40 minutes, Thomas Meunier explaining afterwards that Unai Emery had decided beforehand that the Brazilian would take the first penalty and Cavani the following one. Although sharing the responsibility seems fair, the fact that Neymar has managed to muscle in regardless of some pretty puerile behaviour sets a worrying precedent for a squad already dominated by cliques and egos.
Results: Monaco 1-1 Montpellier, PSG 6-2 Bordeaux, Amiens A-A Lille, Dijon 1-1 Strasbourg, Guingamp 1-1 Toulouse, Nantes 1-0 Metz, Rennes 0-1 Caen, Troyes 2-1 Saint-Étienne, Angers 3-3 Lyon, Nice 2-4 Marseille.