Marseille are the biggest club in France. The tradition and romance that come with their white and light blue coupled with the cauldron that is the Vélodrome surpasses PSG’s millions or Lyon’s seven consecutive titles in terms of stature. They are the only French winner of the Champions’ League, hold a join record of 10 league titles and boast Jean-Pierre Papin, Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps among their alumni. But since their last league win in 2010, the club’s trajectory has been a downward one, culminating in a disastrous 13th place finish last season when they were so poor that fans played the Benny Hill theme from the stands, mocking the players. Now, however, OM are resurgent, and they are not alone. Rudi Garcia’s management, new American owner Frank McCourt’s funding and a growing group of stylish players has them back in the top five, as they lead a reawakening of French club football.
At first glance, it was a bad week for football in France. A previously effervescent Monaco were brushed aside by Max Allegri’s ruthless Juventus outfit in the first leg of their Champions’ League semifinal at the Stade Louis II. A seemingly resurgent Lyon put in a shambolic display, losing 4-1 in their own European semifinal first leg in Amsterdam. Pair these pieces of news with PSG’s still sore, utter humiliation at the Nou Camp and it would appear that Ligue 1 has merely disappointed once again. This, however, is not the case as, a pair of European semifinalists aside, making France the second most represented country at this stage, momentum is starting to gather on the domestic front.
Since QSI’s arrival at PSG back in 2011, the Parisians seem to have almost solely driven wider interest in French football and, from the outside, Ligue 1 has become entirely about them. Last season a 31-point title winning margin and a second consecutive domestic treble bordered on the obscene. In each of the last four seasons, the capital club have won the title with relative ease while French sides have performed poorly in Europe, limping along with just 10 representatives making the final 16 of the Champions’ League or Europa League in the last five seasons, half of which were PSG alone. England, Germany and Italy all at least double this total and Spain nearly triple it, while Russia also outperform the French. Traditionally one of the world’s premier footballing nations where interest is in football rife and talent abundant, France’s recent footballing produce has been alarming poor. But this is changing and, as this year has shown, to dismiss the league as a boring one-team division is more than a little naive.
Further foreign investment and, more importantly, the astute application of that investment has driven development at the summit of Ligue 1, turning a top 1, to a top six or seven. This competitiveness can partly be attributed to PSG as investment has become an attractive proposition for foreigners.
PSG have proven that France has the footballing infrastructure, interest and pulling power for a ‘project’ to become a success, at least certainly in the capital, while other clubs have been forced to find a way to adapt and compete, as Monaco have done this season; their title now all but assured.
Granted, Monaco boast the substantial resources of Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, but their seasonal operating budget is still exceeded by Lyon’s and is less than a third of their Parisian peers with financial fair play and Rybolovlev’s divorce contributing to the scaling back of spending that brought James Rodriguez and Falcao to the principality. The club, led by Rybolovlev’s right hand man, Vadim Vasilyev, have prudently invested in and expertly nurtured young talent from Ligue 1 and abroad, as well as from their own academy.
Thomas Lemar and Tiemoué Bakayoko, both superb both domestically and in the Champions’ League, are examples of talent identified from lower down Ligue 1, signed for a relatively modest fee and given the chance to play and develop at a higher level. Much like Anthony Martial, signed from Lyon for €6m before his mammoth transfer to Manchester, both men now also carry hefty price tags. With the club likely league winners and a return to the Champions’ League next season secured, the need to sell will be diminished, unlike previous years, and they now have a platform on which to build.
Third placed Nice, with a starting budget of roughly €40m, take this model further still in their shrewd, intelligent scouting and precise acquisition of domestic prospects and foreign talent, often from Portugal. Yes, they too now have Chinese investment but their carefully considered approach and deft management has kept them in the title race into the latter stages of the season.
Their routing of PSG incredibly put them within three points of Unai Emery’s team in second with three games to play. After their fourth place finish last year and their form throughout the campaign under the superb Lucien Favre despite their loss of Hatem Ben Arfa, Nice have proved that they are capable of sustaining their success.
Nice’s trip to Marseille on Sunday evening pitted the precise, prudent leadership of Julian Furnier, Jean-Pierre Rivère and Favre again a more ‘Parisien’ approach. Marseille’s American owner Frank McCourt, taking over in October, recently stated he could spend €50m on a single player. Something not seen in France outside PSG and Rybolovlev’s early days at Monaco. McCourt’s financial muscle has already had an effect; enabling the return of Dimitri Payet, spending €9m on the league’s top assist provider Morgan Sanson, funding the €11m re-signing of Florian Thauvin after his purchase clause was activated and tempting Patrice Evra back to France.
Although the full extent of their purchasing power remains to be seen, Marseille are proving that their revamping process can result in success. After a slow start, Rudi Garcia is starting to show his Ligue 1 expertise, a double winner with Lille in 2011, beginning to get the best out of what is a talented if a little lopsided group. Marseille are an attacking spectacle once again.
Their 5-1 demolition of Caen last weekend and their 2-1 win over Nice were arguably their most assured displays yet in their push for a Europa League place amongst the top six. The meeting at the Vélodrome last night typified all that is great about Marseille and Ligue 1 in their current guise; two teams playing stylish and more attacking football, a vociferous crowd (the disgraceful scenes at Bastia aside, many Ligue 1 club’s boast intense and passionate support), star players and a high standard, in what was a compelling encounter.
Marseille are now one of the league’s main attractions. The attacking triumvirate of Bafétimbi Gomis, Payet and Thauvin possess the pace, power and vision to trouble any defence while the waspish Maxime Lopes, after a breakthrough season, coupled with the graceful Morgan Sanson have the makings of a tight and suffocating midfield. All five men have hit some of their best form in recent weeks and proved too much for Nice, inflicting only their third loss of the season. Defensively they admittedly still require some overhaul. Garcia has cajoled his back four into some solid displays but a pair of centre backs and a goalkeeper appear to both be near the top of OM’s shopping list for this summer window.
Marseille can be taken as something of a barometer from French football and as the southerners improve, so will the league as a whole. Although adjustments still need to be made, Lyon have shown, most notably in their superb triumph over Roma and signing of Memphis Depay that they too have the appeal and class to challenge. The likely sales of Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso this summer, their subsequent replacement and the reinvestment of the funds will prove crucial in maintaining the resurgence of a club whose budget this season was second only to PSG.
Bordeaux have an exciting young coach in Jocelyn Gourvennec, and the youthful players to match. Midfield playmaker Valentin Vada and Brazilian attacker Malcom’s breakout years have complemented their signing of veteran Jeremy Toulalan, aiding them in becoming a top 6 club once again. Gérard Lopez’s project at Lille will see the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa next month, in a move that promises to bring the Argentinian’s brand of spell-binding attacking football coupled by a strategy of recruiting some of the world’s most exciting youth prospects masterminded by the former key to Monaco’s transfer market strategy in Luis Campos.
Ligue 1 is not what it used to be, even as of 12 months ago. The flare of Monaco and Lyon, the guile of Nice and Bordeaux, the promise of Lille and the stars of PSG and Marseille make the French top flight a genuine force on the European stage. After the enthralling title race and relative European success of this campaign, the continual emergence of exuberant young talent and the thundering return of the league’s biggest club, next season has the potential to be the best France has seen in the 21st century.
1 | At half-time at the Parc OL on Sunday, Lyon’s recent malaise looked certain to continue. Down a goal and not having had many chances, things did briefly look up for the hosts in the second half as they battled back to take a 2-1 lead before Nantes’ Guillaume Gillet equalised, the Belgian beating embattled captain Maxime Gonalons to the ball at a corner. It would have been the perfect chance for Lyon to wilt, but the team kept their initiative, and managed to score again, with the young substitute Maxwel Cornet netting a brace to complete a 3-2 win. The three points were important, as the result all but sealed fourth place, but more impressive was that the win, sloppy though it was, gave a glimpse of the club’s potential future, a team without Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso.
The two academy products have been integral to Lyon’s recent success, but both are likely to be off in the summer. Tolisso seems to have a natural replacement in Lucas Tousart, even if the youngster is not as much of an attacking threat, but Lacazette seems a much more difficult player to replace, given the going rate for strikers at present. That said, might Lyon do worse than giving Cornet a chance at centre forward? Still just 20, his goals last night brought him to a mere six for the season, but at Cornet’s age, Lacazette, also originally a winger, was yet to start or score in Ligue 1. Down the back end of last season, Cornet was influential in Lyon’s surpassing Monaco for second place, netting seven times in twelve matches. The team’s future is one of relatively high stakes, with recent Chinese investment, but the hope here is that the former Metz youngster is afforded a chance to succeed in a centre forward role that he himself wishes to play.
2 | Watching Bordeaux’s Nicolas Pallois play on Friday evening, one would have been impressed. The veteran centre back is mobile, adept in the tackle and displays an impressive range of passing. His partnership with Igor Lewczuk has been integral to a Bordeaux defence who have improved dramatically this season, even as goal-keeper Cédric Carrasso has struggled with injury. One would have been impressed, that is, until Pallois delivered a horror challenge on Saint-Étienne winger Arnaud Nordin in stoppage time. The youngster was not in a dangerous position, and now Pallois, not for the first time, sees himself unavailable for a crucial fixture, as Sunday’s visit from Marseille looks set to decide fifth place. A three-month ban for an incident with a referee in 2015, and five additional red cards have marred Pallois’ time at the club. One has to wonder whether he is worth the trouble at this point, having potentially left Bordeaux’s European hopes hanging by a thread through his absence.
3 | Ivan Santini’s dramatic, diving header allowed Caen to earn a vital three points in a 1-0 win over Toulouse on Saturday. The big Croatian’s strike was his 15th of the year, a total that betters the dozen scored by the man he replaced, Andy Delort. Of course, there is more to a striker’s play than goals, and Santini, who has committed five times as many fouls as successful tackles this season has often seemed a passenger compared to Delort. The former Wigan man’s energy and pressing from the front had been integral in protecting an aging midfield last season, and Caen looked set to struggle without him. However, what Santini has lacked in mobility and pressing, he has more than evened the score with his goals, even as Caen have struggled. Julien Féret’s grace and Ronny Rodelin’s guile may catch the eye more immediately for the Norman side, but make no mistake, Santini’s goals have been the difference between being damned to Ligue 2 and possible safety, a difference for which more credit is due.
4 | Marco Verratti was at the centre of a not-inconsiderable bit of controversy during Paris Saint-Germain’s match against Bastia. Blaise Matuidi was injured and apparently in need of medical attention. Seeing this, the Corsicans’ ‘keeper, Jean-Louis Leca, went to check on the French international. The official not having blown his whistle, Verratti continued on playing, looping a shot from the edge of the area into Leca’s net. Leca’s reaction was in keeping with his somewhat irascible character, kicking the ball away and receiving a booking, but he can readily be excused in the face of Verratti’s underhanded trick. Bastia are largely undeserving of sympathy, and in a match that finished 5-0, Verratti’s goal was no matter to the result. However, the little Italian, whose penchant for both bookings and harassing officials is well-documented, has done nothing to further endear himself to the French public with his actions, and seems sorely in need of instruction on the principles of fair play.
Results: Nancy 0-3 Monaco, PSG 5-0 Bastia, Marseille 2-1 Nice, Lyon 3-2 Nantes, St Étienne 2-2 Bordeaux, Guingamp 4-0 Dijon, Rennes 1-0 Montpellier, Lille 0-2 Metz, Toulouse 0-1 Caen, Lorient 1-1 Angers.
Team of the Week: Remy Vercoutre, SM Caen; Nordi Mukiele, Montpellier HSC, Damien Da Silva, SM Caen, Kamil Glik, AS Monaco, Vincent Bessat, SM Caen; Fabinho, AS Monaco, Adrien Rabiot, Paris Saint-Germain; Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco, Renaud Cohade, FC Metz, Yannis Salibur, EA Guingamp; Jimmy Briand, EA Guingamp.
Goal of the Week: Renaud Cohade, FC Metz.