It took just 18 seconds. A lively Lorient had harried a lethargic-looking Lille for the opening nine minutes at the tight Stade du Moustoir before Laurent Abergel, one of Ligue 1’s best out-of-possession players, mugged nervy new Lille signing Ignacio Miramón. Failing to receive a pass from goalkeeper Lucas Chevalier, Miramón could only watch as Abergel swept home the opener. Almost from kick-off, another mistake let midfielder Julien Ponceau in for a second.
Despite becoming last season’s surprise package and challenging at the top until the World Cup break, Lorient endured a far trickier second half of the year, eventually trudging home in tenth. Shorn of powerful striker Terem Moffi at Christmas and graceful creator Enzo Le Fée in the off-season, the new 18-team format looked to pose issues for Les Merlus. Avoiding relegation would have been dynamic young coach Régis Le Bris’ only target for the new campaign, having overperformed in his first season in charge.
Meanwhile, Lille’s fifth-place finish last term was, according to the stats, an underperformance. LOSC incredibly topped Understat’s expected points table (based on thousands of match simulations using expected goals data). Individual errors have been debilitating long before Miramón’s summer arrival and likely cost Paulo Fonseca’s charges a Champions League spot at least.
Despite those opposing trajectories, it was Lorient who were rampant, scoring twice more on the break to win 4-1. That was just one of several upsets in France this weekend that proved the perceived established order of a clear top eight of big, well-resourced clubs (PSG, Lens, Marseille, Lyon, Monaco, Nice, Lille, and Rennes) is far from concrete. Ligue 1’s middle class has been improving rapidly of late, and the dogfight likely to develop across the condensed 18-team division plus an extra Champions League berth could result in a surprise European spot for at least one of the less financed sides.
Nantes were seen as leading relegation candidates by many after the loss of attacking fulcrum Ludovic Blas and a risky change of coach, but Monaco struggled to keep up with Les Canaris in this weekend’s 3-3 draw. Behind unpredictable dribbler Moses Simon lies the experience and street smarts that helped a similarly understrength Nantes challenge the top six two years ago. A repeat isn’t impossible.
Montpellier were expected to be a blunt attacking force following young finisher Elye Wahi’s switch to Lens but a 4-1 routing of Lyon last week suggested otherwise as replacement Akor Adams and lightning new Jordanian winger Musa Al-Taamari dismantled OL. However, Der Zakarian’s charges were themselves roundly beaten by fellow upstarts Reims 3-1 at home this weekend. The 30-year-old coach Will Still’s ability to maintain his team’s form was questioned after a long unbeaten run descended into a worryingly erratic end to the campaign and the exit of Arsenal’s Folarin Balogun. But two wins puts Reims just a point behind the early pace.
Still’s side are level on six points with Strasbourg and, most surprisingly, Brest. The protracted sale of talisman Franck Honorat to ‘Gladbach seemed to have robbed the Bretons of their attacking drive and creativity, but if they can keep striker Martin Satriano, who returns from Inter Milan after a successful loan spell two seasons ago, and the versatile Romain Del Castillo fit, they’ll be challenging to beat, especially at home thanks to underrated support and a typically combative style. Results like the opening day win over Champions League Lens won’t be uncommon.
Although a European charge might be a lot to ask for Brest, Strasbourg will see it as a realistic goal. Much of the squad that only missed out on the Europa League on the final day two seasons ago remains and is bolstered by new support from partners Chelsea. Patrick Vieira has his critics and probably a use-by date for his style, but he’s adept at drilling a tight defence and grinding out results, initially at least. Another top-six finish is a genuine possibility.
The intelligent, progressive Le Bris, meanwhile, will be key to Lorient’s European bid, who remain perhaps the best placed of these teams to fight their way up a congested table into the European spots. Although the aristocracy of Marseille, Monaco, and Co. will be confident they have the quality and resources to hold off any such challenge, the chasing pack could yet spring an ambush as quickly as Lorient spooked Lille and Miramón. With three of last season’s top eight currently in the bottom three, the feeling is that anything is possible in the new-look Ligue 1 this season.
Adam White | GFFN