Nouveau Pompier – A Fascinating Start
It has been a fascinating Ligue 1 season so far, as many pundits had anticipated. We are only seven games in but we already have much drama and many talking points. League favourites, PSG, have raised the bar having now found their right rhythm. Ligue 1 giants Marseille have come out of the gates running and have shocked most observers with a blistering start to their season. Alongside them, however, as always, we have the customary surprise packages and disappointments of the season.
Ligue 1 has captured everyone’s imagination with Paris Saint-Germain splashing the cash. But here in this regular column, Ogo Sylla takes you through the league and shows there’s more to it than just oil money
Let us begin with league-leaders, Marseille. After a disappointing end of last season when they ended tenth and a tumultuous summer with some departures – most notably Didier Deschamps (France national team), Alou Diarra (West Ham), Stéphane Mbia (QPR) and César Azpilicueta (Chelsea) – and a few big arrivals, Marseille went on a six-game unbeaten run. It is significant in the sense that good starts to a season are not customary for Marseille, and for them to record their best start of a season in the club’s history and the best in Ligue 1 since Monaco some half a century ago is quite extraordinary, given the circumstances. It all started with an away 1-0 win to newly promoted Reims, and Marseille have just gone from strength to strength since then. Their most accomplished win has been away to Nancy. Although the adversary was not of equal quality, the Marseille performance was a complete one. Many had berated Deschamps’ rigid style but under Élie Baup, the team seems liberated and more fluid in their style. Marseille’s unbeaten run would, however, come to an end at the hands of their bogey team of the last few years, Valenciennes. Marseilles suffered a heavy 4-1 defeat to the North of France club, and that only a week away from the much-awaited clash against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at the Vélodrome.
PSG under Carlo Ancelotti, however, had a much more difficult start to their season. Indeed, the Paris club failed to win in their opening three games, being held by Lorient, Ajaccio, and Bordeaux. But the month of September would prove the turning point, with the first test of the season arriving in the shape of Lille. It proved a masterclass by PSG who, thanks to their star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, rolled over the former French champions. The 2-1 victory also marked a triumphant return to the Champions League with a 4-1 win over Dynamo Kyiv. Their Ligue 1 form also vastly improved with consecutive wins against Toulouse (2-0), Bastia (4-0) and Sochaux (2-0). Ibrahimovic was the main architect, netting six times (in all competitions) to keep their good run of form going. Like Marseille, however, this run of invincibility would come to an end just before the penultimate clash against the great rival, as PSG fell 1-0 to Porto in their midweek Champions League fixture.
Of course for each season, fortunes are as differing from one team to the next. The aforementioned Lille is one of the great disappointments of this season. In fact Lille now sit 15th in Ligue 1, with no more than a solitary win (on opening day to Saint-Étienne). Four draws and two defeats (to PSG and Rennes) don’t do much to improve the picture as Lille seem to not be living the loss of Eden Hazard (to Chelsea) very well. The Belgian was quite instrumental indeed, scoring 20 goals and providing sixteen assists. New signings, Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) and Marvin Martin (Sochaux), are also struggling to adapt to Rudi Garcia’s system. Especially in the latter’s case, considering his difficult season for Sochaux last season, the talented playmaker’s best form still seems to evade him. Moreover, Garcia seems to be hesitant to choose between Nolan Roux and Tulio De Melo for the striker position, making it difficult for his front three to gel together. The unexpected dip in form of Florent Balmont, a key figure of Garcia’s engine room last season, is also proving to be an issue as personal problems have been distracting the French midfielder. Dimitri Payet, a player now looked upon as Lille’s new technical leader is proving to be short in quality – despite his obvious talent – and especially consistency to replace the departed Belgian’s impact. Finally, the most recent injury (meniscus) to club captain Rio Mavuba is a particularly troublesome absence for the coming few weeks for Rudi Garcia.
Amongst the season’s disappointments have been Montpellier, who lived a difficult start of the season. It has more been an issue of inconsistency (two wins, 1 draw and one loss in September) for the French champions. This past month has been more clement to them, however, as they seem to be finding their better form once again. The return of the defence has indeed coincided with the team’s improvement in form, as injuries to Garry Bocaly forced René Girard to break up the central midfield partnership of Hilton and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa (by moving the latter at right-back to cover for the injured Bocaly). Suspensions – rolling over from last season – to Younès Belhanda and Marco Estrada in midfield had also been to blame at the start of the season. Today, after a heavy defeat 3-1 to Reims, the team seems much more fluent, especially considering a valiant draw they snatched away to Schalke 04 whilst being a man down. The only issue still remaining for Montpellier is new signing Emanuel Herrera, replacing the departed Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), who is struggling to adapt to Ligue 1 despite his promising pre-season form.
The surprise packages so far are surely Lyon and Lorient. Although the former’s performances have been on the wane, they remained unbeaten before last weekend’s 2-0 loss to Bordeaux and now sit third of Ligue 1. After many departures and a low-budget recruitment, Lyon have performed above expectations as their current league position might suggest. Indeed, despite the departures of Cris, Kim Källström, and Hugo Lloris, the maturing of youngsters such as Clément Grenier and clever signings like Steed Malbranque keep Lyon a coherent team with some aspirations to finishing in the top three. As for Lorient, the start of this season has been a great one in comparison to the difficult year they had when they flirted with relegation. The new arrival of Alain Traoré from relegated Auxerre has proven a massive boost to Christian Gourcuff’s men. The Burkina Faso international has provided three goals this past month (four goals and an assist in total, so far) and has fit in perfectly into Les Merlus’ system. Gourcuff has also brought back Ludovic Giuly (who had been let go by Monaco) and the former French international is bringing all his experiences to this young Lorient team, having helped them onto fourth spot and a single point behind Lyon.
Of course, for each season we have to have the teams who are already looking in danger. Newly promoted Troyes have to be first on that list, rooted to the ground with only a paltry two points on the board so far and thus winless in the first 7 games of this season. Nancy are in just as much trouble, winless since their opening day win against Brest. September has been particularly tough on Nancy in fact, as they have the unwanted record to have strung together five consecutive defeats. Evian Thonon Gaillard join the basement-boys but it is Sochaux (a point above the relegation zone) who I would like to bring attention to. After a very difficult season last year when they narrowly escaped relegation, Les Lionceaux don’t seem like they will be able to repeat the feat this time around. In effect, with two wins amongst 5 defeats this season so far, it could likely turn out to be a very difficult season for Sochaux who hold the record of being the longest lasting club in Ligue 1 without having been relegated (64 seasons).
We would also do well to discuss some of the players who have shone so far. Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be the top scorer with seven strikes to his name, but it is Toulouse’s Wissam Ben Yedder who is catching some of the spotlight. With his unique background of having come on the football scene just a couple years ago from a futsal background, he already has five goals and an assist to his name. But Ligue 1 is under the charm of young 19-year-old Marco Verratti, who has – beyond all expectations – become an immovable piece of Carlo Ancelotti’s midfield at PSG. But this year’s Ligue 1 is mostly marked by the unlikely return of Marseille’s André-Pierre Gignac, who seems to have refound his best form after some injury-plagued seasons. The Marseille striker has three goals so far this year. Appropriate indeed that we would conclude with PSG and Marseille, as the month of September ended with the Paris club having clawed its way back up the table to set up a first against second clash in Le Classique against archrivals, Marseille.