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Ligue 1 Review – Week 15

Paris Saint-Germain’s run of wins to open the Ligue 1 season finally came to an end last night against an energetic Bordeaux side, the leaders being twice pegged back in a thoroughly entertaining draw. It was certainly a slightly frustrating end to the week after that momentous victory over Liverpool, but was that Champions’ League success something of a false flag? So long as PSG retain their almost preposterous lead at the top of the table (only Montpellier recorded a win of the teams placed second through fifth this weekend), the drum for Ligue 1 being a “farmers’ league” will still be beaten vociferously, but taking this match in isolation, it served as not only a good advert for the league, but also as an intriguing window into the issues that still plague the leaders, both on and off the pitch.

It was confirmed that PSG would be the league’s autumn champions before this matchday even started, but despite their record-breaking pace, all is far from well in the French capital. The two most curious cases are clearly those of Edinson Cavani and Adrien Rabiot. Rabiot has been in rare form with his immaturity in 2018, refusing to be placed on Didier Deschamps’ standby list ahead of the World Cup and batting back several offers to renew his contract. With his mother acting as his agent, that side of things has long been contentious, but this latest break seems irretrievable; despite coming on against Liverpool in mid-week, Rabiot wasn’t even included in the eighteen at the Matmut Atlantique, with Marquinhos partnering Julian Draxler in central midfield.

Thomas Tuchel is negotiating a very busy time for the club at present, with midweek fixtures in each of the next three weeks that will see the team play eight matches in 24 days, and would surely have wanted to give key men a rest with far more tricky (on paper, at least) fixtures ahead at Strasbourg (who had inflicted a shock defeat in the same fixture against PSG last season), Montpellier, and, most importantly, Red Star Belgrade in the next ten days. However, Rabiot not being included in the squad, although allegedly for “family reasons”, has been seen as a serious marker that he is an unwanted, and perhaps even superfluous presence in the opinion of Tuchel, even if President Al-Khelaifi remains desperate to extend the player’s deal. The relationship between player and coach first soured following Tuchel’s decision to bench Rabiot as punishment for turning up late to a team meeting before the most recent Le Classique.

It is true that Tuchel has done a fine job reinventing his midfield despite not having acquired an orthodox holding midfielder in the summer. Marquinhos was superb in mid-week, and is looking increasingly comfortable in that new role, while Julian Draxler, once seen as likely to depart the French capital following the signing of Neymar, has similarly adapted well, even if he is a bit lightweight on occasion. However, to completely alienate Rabiot with his contract set to expire in six months seems foolish indeed. Despite his recent strops, he is undoubtedly a talented player, and still just 23. For a club who were unable to be as ambitious as they would have liked in the summer, Rabiot’s sell-on value alone should make him at least worthy of being put in the proverbial shop window ahead of January.

More confounding, however, was Tuchel’s decision to leave Cavani on the bench. The Uruguayan has struggled this season in the wake of an injury sustained at the World Cup, but was on target against Toulouse last weekend and had netted a hat-trick against Monaco before the international break, and seemed to be showing signs of righting the ship. He was in the starting eleven against Liverpool, but played only a bit more than an hour, having been withdrawn for Eric Choupo-Moting.

Here, though, he was consigned to watching from the sidelines, as Neymar was withdrawn through injury for the Cameroon international, and Dani Alves, still working his way back to full fitness after a six-month layoff, made way for Marco Verratti. Both of those changes seem reasonable enough on the surface; Neymar has struggled for fitness for the entirety of 2018, having been rushed back into action to feature for his country at the World Cup, and Alves is 35. That said, Kylian Mbappé, already struggling with a shoulder injury suffered on international duty, immediately signaled for a substitution after scoring in the second half, no small cause for concern, but was left on the pitch until the match’s end, Tuchel taking a seemingly unnecessary risk with the fitness of his young star in a match that really meant little besides pride.

Cavani has always been a faithful servant for Paris Saint-Germain, biding his time alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a makeshift winger in a 4-3-3, and having one player after another become the true focal point of the attack, even as he proved, in the 2016-17 season, that he was more than capable of being that player, netting 35 goals in 36 matches. He may be aging, with his 32nd birthday in February coming just after the twelfth anniversary of his initial move to Europe, but he has more than proven his worth as the sort of striker whose dogged style of play makes the difference against league opposition that so often tries to shut up shop. His complete omission last night, much like Neymar & Mbappé’s ever-increasing proclivity to only pass to each other in attacks, was another sign that there might not be room for Cavani in the Tuchel era.

Indeed, what made this match so vibrant was the fact that Bordeaux didn’t sit back. With Younousse Sankharé in an advanced role, the wide attackers, Yann Karamoh and François Kamano, were free to nip at the heels of PSG’s defence, and it was clear that their efforts, particularly in the second half, went a long way towards unsettling the leaders. Angel Di Maria was only just denied a late winner in hitting the bar, but Benoît Costil didn’t have a save to make on the evening until the 91stminute; Bordeaux’s proactive and energetic approach could have easily earned them three points on another evening. This is by no means to suggest that there is now a template in place to get a result against the leaders, but it would be no surprise to see PSG struggle with more regularity in the weeks to come if other sides approach their matches with the same verve exhibited by Bordeaux.

 

1 | Despite a combined record of no wins in 21 league games and only 8 points from a possible 63, Dijon’s trip to Toulouse on Sunday lunchtime proved surprisingly enthralling. TFC keeper Baptiste Reynet, who left Dijon this summer, saw red after just 4 minutes, storming from his area to cut down Julio Tavares. Although Dijon duly strolled into a 2-0 lead, TFC talisman Max Gradel was on hand to inspire an unlikely comeback. An empathic overhead kick and an assist for Aaron Leya Iseka to equalise underlined the notion that, without the Ivorian, Toulouse would be in far greater trouble. Nevertheless the 2-2 draw did little to aid coaches Alain Casanova and Olivier Dall’oglio who remain under pressure as their winless runs continue.

2 | Nîmes matched fellow promoted side Reims in ending the weekend inside the top half. Les Crocodiles have reigned in their gung-ho attitude of the early season, moving away from a free-wheeling 4-2-4 to a more considered 4-3-3 having gone 9 games without a win, before producing a 4-0 routing of Dijon last month. Saturday’s 3-0 win over Amiens was their third in four as, despite a new found pragmatism, wingers Denis Bouanga and Sada Thioub continue to maraud forward at every opportunity, their skill and directness routinely untamable while midfield general Teji Savanier’s vision and aggression is starting to win midfield battles, aided by new loan signing Jordan Ferri from Lyon. Europe isn’t out of the question for Bernard Blaquart’s increasingly effective outfit.

3 | Despite having finally squeezed out a win at Caen last weekend, Thierry Henry’s record as Monaco manager now reads 1 win, 2 draws and 6 defeats after a late collapse to Montpellier. Monaco had deservedly led, Youri Tielemans dictating proceedings and rounding off a swift counter just before half-time, but Les Monegasqueswere undone by some disastrous defending. Out jumped by Andy Delort to head home with ten minutes to play, centre back Jemerson was then embarrassingly bamboozled by substitute Petar Skuletic for the Montpellier winner. Overall the performance represented a slight improvement but relegation remains a genuine possibility for Henry’s charges who stay 19th.

Results: St Étienne 3-0 Nantes, Lille 2-2 Lyon, Angers 1-1 Caen, Guingamp 0-0 Nice, Monaco 1-2 Montpellier, Nîmes 3-0 Amiens, Toulouse 2-2 Dijon, Marseille 0-0 Reims, Rennes 1-4 Strasbourg, Bordeaux 2-2 PSG.

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