Marseille’s 4-2 win at Nice was a somewhat calamitous affair, riddled with poor defending and punctuated by the midfielder Luiz Gustavo’s sending off. 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 on to 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 the Marseille owner Frank McCourt’s “Champions Project” but as a clear indictment of the paucity of – if not quality – consistency in Ligue 1 this season.
Right behind Marseille, with their clutch of high-profile, albeit ageing, 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 organisation under Claudio Ranieri, combined with the class of Ciprian Tatarusanu in goal, have allowed them to be consistently stubborn opponents, allowing only two goals in their last seven matches. Caen have taken that edict even further, a somewhat surprising turn, given how open the manager Patrice Garande’s sides usually are, winning five of six behind the league’s best defence. Both have 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 most expected to thrive this season, however, have been woefully inconsistent. Along with Marseille and their opponents on Sunday evening, Lyon, St-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.
Bordeaux, who had gone into the weekend as one of two unbeaten sides in Ligue 1, lost 6-2 to an irresistible Paris Saint-Germain. They have put on 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 Atlético Paranaense. His range of passing and ability in the tackle have impressed so far, allowing the veteran Jérémy Toulalan to transition to a new role in central defence. The team still look suspect in the full-back 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 problems 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, the club president, Jean-Michel Aulas, made a decisive investment in younger players, following on from his January purchase of Memphis Depay. The midfielder Tanguy N’Dombélé, the striker Mariano Díaz, the attacker Bertrand Traoré and the full-backs 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 10 men. Similar results against Bordeaux and Dijon have resulted in Lyon dropping 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 column a month ago, but have been undone by poor discipline and a failure to be clinical in their finishing. They have finished three of their last four matches with 10 men. With only one point from those three games, the team have slipped slowly down the table as a result, with Sunday’s early match the latest setback. Mamadou Samassa played a fine match in goal for the hosts Troyes but the visitors’ consolation marked only their third goal from open play in their last five. The summer signing Loïs Diony has failed to click with his team-mates and while there is optimism over the creativity that Rémy Cabella can potentially add to the side, Óscar García’s positive approach could leave Sainté spinning their wheels without a bona-fide finisher.
Nice, meanwhile, have been every bit as maddening as the other sides mentioned, going from the stylish, brilliant, counterattacking side we saw in the opening stages on Sunday 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 but 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 neighbours 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. The captain, Steve Mandanda, who looks back to his best after an injury lay-off was effusive in his praise for his team-mates 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 10. 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 have 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 play-offs. In the meantime, as Sunday’s results (15 goals in three matches) showed, that doesn’t mean that the chase can’t be entertaining. 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.
• 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. Ángel Di María was quiet in August before his injury, Lucas Moura has been on the fringes of the team and Julian Draxler has seemed a little sheepish, despite being afforded significant game time in starting four of the last six. However, as the German showed with a superb display in PSG’s 6-2 thumping of Bordeaux, 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, whose 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 María, 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.
• After Nantes opened the season with a pair of meek defeats and a largely unsuccessful scattergun transfer window, Claudio Ranieri’s fledgling reign 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 five 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. 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 a phrase those supporters will hope to hear many more times between now and May, with a Europa League spot now centred in their crosshairs.
• 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 at least 29 fans injured. 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 metre or so to pitch level. The LFP stated that the recent refurbishment of the Stade de la Licorne was also not the cause, the 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. Supporters rushing to the front of terraces after a goal is a common sight 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 LFP should now seriously consider overhauling its regulations.
• As PSG routed Bordeaux on Saturday afternoon, who would take any subsequent PSG penalty became the only aspect of the encounter. 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 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.