Ligue 1 has been rightly criticised for a lack of genuine competitiveness in the last few years, but the league’s overall quality has improved markedly this season. One of the most feted projects, Gerard Lopez’s takeover at Lille, has failed to pay dividends as yet, with the club lingering near the foot of the table, but three other sides have made an impact at the top of the table.
Monaco, hamstrung by their owner Dmitry Rybolovlev’s financial difficulties, were always going to sell this summer, but they still look a good bet to return to the Champions League. With the possible exception of Bernardo Silva, they received good value for the players they sold in the summer. They chose their replacements well and went into the mid-season break in second place on the back of four consecutive victories.
Youri Tielemans’ impact has been limited by injury, but Keita Baldé looks to be an eager presence in attack. His versatility allows Monaco to manage both a long-term injury to Thomas Lemar and a sometimes-creaky Radamel Falcao. The arrivals of Adama Diakhaby, Soualiho Meïté and Terence Kongolo are yet to pay dividends but, with the latter two out on loan, there is still hope they can further their buy low, sell high philosophy. Questions still linger over the defence, which has been unsteady at times, but with Falcao scoring at a ferocious rate – 15 goals in 16 matches – Monaco seem to be finding their form after a difficult stretch in which they were eliminated from Europe and picked up just one point from a possible nine in the league.
Lyon, who are level on points with Monaco, were also a selling club in the summer. They brought in more than €100m from the sales of Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Emanuel Mammana, but have spent well on Bertrand Traoré, Mariano Diaz, Kenny Tete and Tanguy N’Dombélé, all of whom are 24 or younger. Their string starts have followed on from the successes of Maxwel Cornet and Lucas Tousart, who have been impressive since signing from Metz and Valenciennes as teenagers.
Lyon’s academy continues to be one of the best in Europe. Anthony Lopes has continued his quiet improvement in goal; Nabil Fékir is fulfilling the promise he showed before suffering an ACL injury in 2015; and Mouctar Diakhaby is a coltish presence in defence, even as he seeks consistency. Their real revelation of the season, however, has been Houssem Aouar. He is comfortable in central midfield, as a No10, or on either wing, and his wiry frame belies a dogged and surprisingly physical style of play that has made him a player who Bruno Génésio relies upon no matter the magnitude of the occasion.
Lyon and Monaco are separated only goal difference at present, with both having racked up an impressive 41 points in the first half of the season, but Marseille remain hot on their heels, just three points behind, having pursued their own strategy for success. Frank McCourt, the former owner of the LA Dodgers, is not as wealthy as PSG’s Qatari owners, but Marseille have adopted a similar approach to team-building: signing veteran players who are easily marketed. Marseille finished 16 points behind the top three last season so they are doing something right in this campaign.
Luiz Gustavo, who was 30 years old and hadn’t played for Brazil in more than a year when they signed him for €10m for Wolfsburg, looked overpriced, but the Brazilian has been a massive success in midfield, adding solidity and dynamism that was sorely lacking before his arrival. The defence, too, has been improved by the arrival of Adil Rami and Steve Mandanda, players who often appeared past their best in recent seasons. There has been the odd embarrassing moment, such as their 6-1 shellacking by Monaco earlier in the season, but even as the attack, save Florian Thauvin, struggles to find form, their veteran backline has been much more reliable than in years past, recording nine clean sheets in the league and underscoring the value of proven performers.
With Marseille and Lyon still involved in the Europa League, Monaco may hold the whip hand in the race for second, but the evolution of the former two should not go unnoticed. Both sides have shown great resolve this season and look well-placed to continue their progress in France and Europe. The hegemonic power of Paris Saint-Germain remains undiminished but Ligue 1, echoing the heady days of the Premier League a decade ago, just may be on its way to having its own “Big Four,” even if the gap from Marseille to fifth-place Nantes is just five points.
• Ligue 1 clubs returned to action this weekend in the last-64 stage of the Coupe de France, a tournament whose preliminary rounds began last February with thousands of clubs taking part. Eighth-tier FC Still were the lowest ranked club in the ninth round and they were rewarded with a tie against Troyes of Ligue 1. Due to France’s sprawling fourth and fifth tiers, 276 teams sit between Troyes and the first of the regional leagues of which FC Still are in Grand Est’s (one of 13 regions) third division. FC Still are a fledgling club, only born in the early 2000s, when the town’s major called now club president Dennis Hildenbrandt to encourage him to start a team to fill the town’s brand new but dormant pitch. Incredibly, they held out heroically for 80 minutes until Troyes veteran Benjamin Nivet scored the only goal of the game. In a weekend in which Montpellier only beat fifth-tier Pontarlier on penalties, Bordeaux lost to US Granville and Monaco were pegged back twice by fourth division side Yzeure, the biggest result was a 1-0 defeat for an amateur side.
• Bereft of the support and resources enjoyed by the lower leagues in England, the French third tier and below is populated by semi-pro or amateur provincial clubs who struggle to draw crowds in the hundreds. Granville, currently 11th in their fourth division “Group D”, are one such club. A recent 1-0 loss to Marseille aside, Granville’s tie with Bordeaux on Sunday was the biggest in their history. Jocelyn Gourvennec’s side took the lead through Younousse Sankharé but the increasingly thin ice Gourvennec has found himself on recently seemed to melt away as right-back Youssouf Sabaly received a second booking before a goal from Sullivan Marinet forced the match into extra-time. Thomas Carrique was also dismissed for Bordeaux after he had given away a penalty that was duly converted by Ladislas Douniama. With Bordeaux struggling – and ultimately failing – to fight back, Jaroslav Plasil also saw red with 10 minutes remaining. The 2-1 defeat was a huge upset and one that surely ends Gourvennec’s tenure at the club.