In contrast to the past few weeks, when much of the attention in France was focused on a particular match, be it the Coupe de la Ligue final or Lyon’s trip to Paris Saint-Germain, the fixture calendar had thrown up nothing so compelling on matchday 32. Paris Saint-Germain were given the Sunday night slot, traditionally reserved for the weekend’s biggest match, by dint of their popularity; their opponents, Guingamp, have failed to score at the Parc des Princes since 2002, a trend that continued unabated. The Bretons had beaten PSG at home earlier in the season, but their form has waned badly in 2017, and there was no reason to think that the match would be entertaining. That was borne out in a dour 4-0 win for the hosts, but in a surprising turn of events, there was more than enough excitement on Saturday to make up for Sunday’s series of damp squibs, much of it centred around the teams at the bottom.
Last season, the battle to avoid relegation to Ligue 2 came down to the last day, with Toulouse, on the heels of a furious fightback, staying up and Reims and Gazelec Ajaccio going down. Neither Reims, who had bizarrely changed their manager late in the season, nor Gazelec, operating on a comparatively minuscule budget, were the type of club that were likely to stay in France’s top flight. What caught the eye, though, was the dramatic late turnaround of Toulouse under Pascal Dupraz. The fiery manager had had some decent success in keeping Evian in Ligue 1, but with Toulouse badly adrift upon his appointment, he seemed a bold choice. Lorient and Bastia, this year’s seemingly ironclad candidates for the drop, were likewise seemingly cut away before the international break, but looked to have run out of options.
Changes in leadership had done little for either club, as Bernard Casoni had replaced Sylvain Ripoll in November, and Rui Almeida had been hired in Corsica in February, but both still occupied the bottom two spots in early March. It seemed thus that, with the transfer window closed and the new managers having failed to influence either team’s situation, the two sides, both of whom have been in the top flight for a decent amount of time compared to most sides in the bottom half, would have to face the ignominy of relegation. Some were quick to draw parallels to the 2014-15 season, where Metz and Lens were officially relegated late in the season, but had been adrift of the teams above them for some time, making the relegation fight rather uninteresting. Things had started to shift slightly before the international break, as Lorient’s dramatic 3-2 win at Nancy pulled the Breton side ever so slightly back towards safety, but it remained to be seen whether the team could gain momentum, as they were yet to win consecutive matches all season. That momentum, though, did continue, with a win at home to Caen and Les Merlus’ latest, and most surprising triumph, a 4-1 away win against Lyon, whose home form of late has been imperious.
Lorient coach Casoni was effusive in his praise of his charges, and deservedly so, as the visitors’ ambitious 4-4-2 worked to a tee against a Lyon side who may have had one eye on Thursday’s Europa League clash with Besiktas. The players, too, were brimming with confidence. The veteran midfielder Arnold Mvuemba, a former Lyon player for whom revenge might have been just a bit sweeter, remarked, “Offensively, we know we have the means, and we have to take advantage of them.” Teammate Benjamin Moukandjo, whose brace gives him four goals in three matches, was similarly resolute. “We had a game plan, we executed it,” said the striker. “We knew it was necessary to try to contain this extremely attacking team but also to profit from the spaces that would appear.” With this kind of confidence and a favourable run-in (only Bordeaux are in the top six from their remaining opponents), Ligue 1 may be about to witness another remarkable survival.
What perhaps makes Lorient’s bid for safety even more incredible is that they are not alone in doing so; each of the bottom three won this weekend, leaving the bottom five separated by only four points with six matches to play. Bastia earned just their third win away from home this season, 2-1, against Dijon to pull within a point of their opponents. Nancy, in the play-off position at the start of the weekend after an extended winless run, also won, scoring three goals for the first time in the league this season to dispatch an admittedly injury-hit Rennes, 3-0. This quintet, which also includes Caen, have a handful of matches against each other, but can also look eagerly at opponents like Guingamp, Rennes and Metz as potential opportunities for points.
Admittedly, the closest title race across Europe’s big five leagues will continue to take centre stage in France, with most hoping for an end to PSG’s hegemony. However, given how close the race to stay up is, and the willingness of its participants to play attacking football as a means of avoiding the drop, one could certainly do worse than follow Ligue 1’s compelling battle for survival.
1 | Mario Balotelli scored his first goals away from home for Nice this season on Friday, netting a brace in a 2-1 win at Lille. Nice are not out of the title race quite yet, just four points off of Monaco (who, alongside PSG, have a game in hand), but one has to wonder where Les Aiglons might be had they not failed to earn three points on their travels to the likes of Bastia, Rennes or Caen. The controversial Italian’s maddening lack of goals away from the confines of the Allianz Riviera has been, aside from serious injuries to Wylan Cyprien and Alassane Pléa, the only let-down in an otherwise superb season for Lucien Favre and his charges.
On the heels of Friday’s result and last week’s gritty win over in-form Bordeaux, a third successive win, at home to Nancy on Saturday, will see the team clinch third place, and with it, a place in the Champions’ League qualifying rounds. Their task there will be far from easy, but it still represents an incredible achievement, one that had hardly been thought possible after the loss of Hatem Ben Arfa, Valère Germain and Nampalys Mendy, all influential in last season’s push for European football. Favre’s style is not as aesthetically pleasing as Claude Puel’s diamond 4-4-2, but the manager has been superb in balancing a staggering number of absences, whether through injury (Ricardo Pereira, Paul Baysse and Younes Belhanda have all missed more than a month) or the Africa Cup of Nations (midfield cog Jean-Michael Seri). He has demonstrated a sublime mastery in terms of altering formations (3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1) and player rotation. Even with Nice’s unlikely title bid now seemingly gone, one would be remiss not to acknowledge the impressive nature of what now looks set to be the club’s best finish in more than forty years.
2 | Monaco, playing a heavily rotated side ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Dortmund, managed to scrape a 1-0 win at the newly renamed Stade Raymond Kopa. Hosts Angers were more than up for the task, though, even with their own eleven being less than first-choice through injury. With the hosts superb on the break and powerful in midfield, Monaco likely owe their continued place at the top of the table more to goalkeeper Danijel Subasic than goal-scorer Radamel Falcao. The Colombian had been snatching at his chances all afternoon, but the goal that earned Monaco three points was a thing of beauty, with Nabil Dirar running onto a beautifully weighted ball from Kamil Glik before playing it back to the striker, who tapped in from ten yards.
The result, then, much like a recent win over Bordeaux, was enough to set the nerves jangling, but also was a strong affirmation of Monaco’s overwhelming quality, and their attendant ability to make something from nothing. The win, combined with Paris Saint-Germain’s defeat of Guingamp, keeps the leaders’ cushion at three points (and goal difference). Yet even with a potentially taxing trip to Lyon in two weeks’ time, owing to this quality and a marked air of determination, Monaco’s march to the title is beginning to take on something of an air of inevitability, even as they continue to battle on three fronts. With Leonardo Jardim able to call on players like Dirar and João Moutinho when rotating his side, even with injuries, this team have approached the league with an unremitting focus. That focus now is tantalisingly close to bearing fruit, and, with seven matches remaining, becoming a potentially massive testament to Jardim’s bravura.
3 | While his team may have lost to Monaco, the result was none the fault of Angers’ Alexandre Letellier. The 26-year-old goalkeeper made his first appearance of the season mid-week in the Coupe de France, and a string of late saves were key in seeing off Bordeaux in that match. The former Paris Saint-Germain man had waited patiently for his chance since joining Angers, and had seemingly got it with the club’s sale of Ludovic Butelle last winter, but fate in the form of a cruciate injury cruelly intervened, forcing the club to sign Nimes’ Mathieu Michel as cover. A long recovery period was difficult, but Letellier kept his perspective, modestly remarking of his mid-week heroics, “In those moments, you think back to all those moments of difficulty that you experienced during the rehabilitation process. I received a lot of support during my injury, and I was keen to help my friends.”
Surprisingly picked ahead of Michel for this match, the lanky Letellier was once again superb, turning in a near-unbelievable set of close-range saves from a pair of Monaco corners as his team pressed for an equaliser. He also did well to take the ball off the feet of the speedy Almamy Touré in stoppage time, showing no reticence to test his surgically repaired knee. Angers’ surprising form in 2017 (only four sides have more points in the calendar year) has been largely down to an improvement in attacking play, but that offensive nous, when combined with the play of an in-form goalkeeper, now looks to make them a tricky proposition over the next six weeks. Angers will face an equally stern test against Paris Saint-Germain on Friday, but on this form, one would be wary of putting anything beyond the reinvigorated Letellier.
4 | Marseille kept up their impressive unbeaten run in the league, stretching that run to five matches with a scoreless draw at Toulouse. However, with Bordeaux winning again, that result saw Rudi Garcia’s side lose more ground in the race for European places, even as Lyon and Saint-Étienne both failed to record three points. There is still a good chance that sixth place will bring European football, but Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain have been drawn together in one semi-final of the Coupe de France, which means that the winner of that match will face a potentially awkward opponent in the final: both Angers and Guingamp are capable of troubling the best the league has to offer.
Even if Marseille’s league placement does yield European football, that would mean their season would start in late July, a far from ideal situation given the club’s plans for player movement come the summer. Games against Bordeaux on the penultimate matchday and Saint-Étienne next week have now taken on an outsize importance; despite the odd encouraging display, Marseille have been too often poor in attack, and frequently required saving by their outstanding veteran goalkeeper, Yohann Pelé. The ex-Toulouse man was at it again yesterday, denying Andy Delort from six yards to preserve the result against his former club.
A long-term injury to Bafétimbi Gomis was a part of the team’s attacking issues, but Marseille’s lack of coherence, and indeed, intent in attack was once again their undoing. More than personnel, Garcia needs to focus instead on instilling a combative mentality to earn results at crucial junctures. Knowing that Lyon had lost and Sainté were to face in-form Nantes, this weekend presented an ideal opportunity to steal a march on their rivals, but the chance instead went begging, a frustrating result given the club’s ambitions. If more gumption is not shown in the next few weeks, the struggles of Marseille’s project will surely increase without European football on offer.
5 | Memphis Depay’s childish antics in the build-up to Lyon’s match against Lorient have earned the winger no plaudits in France, it is safe to say. The former Manchester United winger posted an image of a lion’s paw stepping on a fish (Lorient are known as “Les Merlus,” the hake) on Twitter ahead of the match with the caption, “fish on the menu.” Given the subsequent result, a 4-1 thrashing for the hosts, the Dutchman is better advised not to give an in-form opponent, even one battling against relegation, any additional motivation. One can have some sympathy for his desire to connect with Lyon’s fans on social media, but until Depay delivers on the pitch with some degree of consistency, he is perhaps better served by keeping quiet.
Team of the Week: Alexandre Letellier, Angers SCO; Kelvin Amian, Toulouse FC, Erick Cabaco, AS Nancy-Lorraine, Maxime Le Marchand, OGC Nice, Vincent Le Goff, Lorient FC ; Sylvain Marveaux, Lorient FC, Valentín Vada, Girondins de Bordeaux, Issiar Dia, AS Nancy-Lorraine; Benjamin Moukandjo, FC Lorient, Mario Balotelli, OGC Nice, Edinson Cavani, Paris Saint-Germain.
Goal of the Week: Majeed Waris, FC Lorient.