A new feature on this website is the introduction of weekly & fortnightly columns focusing on various leagues, countries and regions across the World. Rich Allen analyses and gives his opinion here on the talking points in French football.
Another round of Ligue 1 games has come and gone. It’s still tight at the top and tight at the bottom as we look at the talking points from week 21.
Rampant Rhone Valley – Part One
Lyon consolidated their position at the top of Ligue 1 with a 2-0 victory away to Lens, who in turn were playing away in Amiens. After reaching the summit last week, it took a slightly comical own goal and Alexandre Lacazette with his 20th goal of the season via the penalty spot, to ensure Lyon came away with the points and guaranteed top spot at the end of week 21.
As has been the case for much of this season though, it was the fact Lyon play as a team which proved to be the telling factor. From goalkeeper to striker, this is a Lyon team who are a joy to watch and seem to revel in lining up together. Lacazette will understandably take the plaudits but the win over Lens encapsulated why this Lyon team has been so successful this season. At times during the game on Saturday, Lens had the league leaders struggling but Lyon demonstrated that with their natural attacking style being stifled, they could still rely on the likes of Anthony Lopes and Samuel Umtiti to stand firm. Lopes has really blossomed this season into one of Ligue 1’s most impressive goalkeepers and Umtiti shows maturity and talent far beyond his years. Shielded by captain Maxime Gonalons and with the likes of Corentin Tolisso, who again showed his versatility, Nabil Fekir, who continues his rise in the rankings and Jordan Ferri who quietly goes about business with bite.
One player who many did not expect to make much of an impact this season was Christophe Jallet. The experienced right back made a fairly low key move in the summer after becoming surplus to requirements after PSG signed Serge Aurier to compete with Gregory van der Wiel for that position. His arrival was hardly met with joyous rapture at the Stade de Gerland but game after game this season, Jallet has been quietly going about his business efficiently and effectively. He has become Mr. Dependable for Lyon this season having played every minute of every league game so far. His bursts up the right flank have enabled him to come up with three goal assists so far and his defensive abilities have also proved reliable. His recall to the French national team late last year was just reward for a player who might just be the best right back playing in Ligue 1 at present.
Rampant Rhone Valley – Part Two
Christophe Galtier is a name many are slowly but surely becoming more and more familiar with. The form of his Saint-Etiennes side is reward for a manager who has achieved things bordering on the miraculous with les Verts. Season after season he has to see big name players leave the club whilst managing the expectations of arguably Ligue 1’s most vociferous supporters. It is therefore amazing to see that every year he is getting improved results from his tight knit group of players.
I wrote elsewhere towards the end of 2014 how I felt that Galtier might be reaching the end of the road with Saint-Etienne, that he had taken them as far as he could and that they had become, dare I say, quite stagnant. I have rarely felt this good to have been proved wrong. You have to now go all the way back to early October for the last time the club lost a league game, an impressive run which included a 3-0 thrashing of local rivals Lyon. Galtier it seems can do no wrong.
Unlike their attack minded neighbours up the road, this Saint-Etienne team is one built on good old fashioned graft. Defence is key for the men in green with Stephane Ruffier, Kevin Theophile-Catherine, Franck Tabanou, Moustapha Sall and the captain and inspiration, Loic Perrin, Saint-Etienne have the meanest defence in Ligue 1 with only 13 goals conceded. Flashy players are few and far between but with that defence and the likes of Fabien Lemoine, Benjamin Cornet and Jeremy Clement shoring up the midfield, Saint-Etienne are showing, as Lille did last season, that clean sheets are just as important as scoring goals. Their 0-0 draw away to Rennes on Sunday afternoon was another example of defence over attack.
Big decisions for the Champions
A 4-2 win at home to Evian Thonon Gaillard will do little to mask the problems many are beginning (or continue) to see at the champions. We all know the big names at PSG have their say and by big names we of course mean the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Motta and captain Thiago Silva. This season however the big trio have failed to match their performances with their reputation. There seems to be too much focus on calling the shots and pulling the strings then performing to their best for the team. It’s no coincidence that PSG are only in 3rd place so far this season.
Whilst Zlatan may not be fully fit, he will at least provide a moment of magic or knock in a goal or two as we saw in the weekend win, it is the two Thiagos where the real concern is. They both seem to have finally gotten too big for their boots. Since returning from injury, Silva has failed to be the inspirational leader on and off the pitch that PSG need. His form has gone out of the window and he seems more of a liability in the PSG defence. Big decision 1 – has the time come to drop Silva? Does Laurent Blanc have the bottle to stand up to the clear leader of the dressing room? It was clear when Silva was out that David Luiz and Marquinhos had the potential to become an excellent centre back pairing. It is that partnership I feel Blanc needs to reintroduce, especially if he is to stay in his job.
Big decision 2 – time to drop Motta and drop him for a prolonged period. This season he has looked slow, bored and careless. Sadly qualities that many may say have already started spreading throughout the team. Whilst Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti will always give you 100% and have shown this season they are prepared to fight for the team, Motta has looked distinctly disinterested. With Yohan Cabaye and Adrien Rabiot sitting on the bench, perhaps now is the time for Blanc to make a second decisive, job saving decision.
Monegasque’ show some mettle
You want a form team in Ligue 1? I give you Monaco. After all the trials and tribulations of last season and the summer with massive names leaving the club, Leonardo Jardim made a woeful start to life in the French top flight. Since a home defeat at the hands of Cote d’Azur neighbours Nice at the end of September, Monaco have only lost one league game and one Champions League game. It’s that form that has seen them rise to 5th in the table and only four points behind a European place. Their 1-0 win over fellow high flyers Nantes epitomized the gritty, no nonsense style of play that Jardim has employed.
It is odd then that those who were quick to criticize Jardim at the start of the season are now failing to give him the praise he so richly deserves for turning things around in the principality. He has been unafraid to give youth a chance with the likes of Anthony Martial, Bernardo Silva, Layvin Kurzawa and the impressive Yannick Ferreira Carrasco sitting comfortably alongside the more experienced players.
Two players who have impressed in recent weeks have been Tiemoue Bakayoko and Danijel Subasic. A summer signing from Rennes has impressively filled the void Geoffrey Kondgobia left after picking up a lengthy injury. Kondogbia was arguably Monaco’s most impressive player up until the end of November news of his injury understandably left many at the club fearing the worst. However Bakayoko has allayed those fears excellently with strong performance after strong performance that will leave Kondogbia having to work hard to get back into the team once recovered.
Monaco haven’t conceded a goal in Ligue 1 since the end of November, a statistic that should lead to more praise for goalkeeper Subasic. The Croatian, one of the first to arrive following the Russian revolution, has been in superb form. With a creaky centre back pairing of Ricardo Carvalho and either Andrea Raggi or Aymen Abdennour in front of him, it’s not like he’s been kept quiet. A confident shot stopper and with improved positioning, Subasic joins a lengthy list of top quality Ligue 1 goalkeepers.
5th in the table, a semi-final Coupe de la Ligue place, round of 32 in the Coupe de France and round of 16 in the Champions League. After the doom and gloom of early season, there’s a very different mood at the Stade Louis II.
Relegation Round Up
If the race for top spot was tight, the battle to avoid the drop is paper thin. Just seven points separates bottom of the table Caen and Guingamp up in 15th place. None of the teams involved have been able to gain any significant prolonged momentum to get out of the scrap but that all adds to the excitement of the neutrals.
Caen looked doomed a few weeks ago but their excellent 4-1 win over Reims has given them hope and they are now only two points from safety. Lens showed in their defeat to Lyon that they have the capability to give anyone a game. The form Metz have been in has given their fans cause for concern. They had made their home ground a fortress earlier in the season but their most recent collapse, a 3-2 defeat at home to Montpellier, means they have failed to win at the Stade Saint-Symphorien or indeed in Ligue 1, since early November. Guingamp are perhaps the in form team in the relegation scrap. They went undefeated in December and were unlucky to come away from the Velodrome on the wrong side of a narrow 2-1 defeat to Marseille. Bastia, Lorient and Evian have the experience of avoiding the drop but all three will be concerned with their current form.
It’s safe to say that whilst all eyes will be on the battle at the top of the table, the mammoth scrap at the foot of the table could well give rise to even more excitement.
Talent Radar Player of the Week
Raphael Guerreiro – an incredibly rare bright spark in what has been a tough campaign for Lorient, the Portuguese youngster has been on fire this season. A left back by trade, he has played most of this season in a more advanced left wing role and has thrived. His latest performance was a man of the match display in the crucial win over Lille. He grabbed the winning goal to take his total five goals and two assists. Not bad for someone who had only one senior goal to his name prior to this season. Strong going forward as well as dependable in defence, Guerreiro surely won’t be with Lorient for long as the summer transfer window draws near. It is imperative therefore that les Merlus get the most out of him whilst they can. In this form, there is every reason he could single handedly keep Lorient in Ligue 1.
Guerreiro featured in Outside of the Boot’s #TalentRadar Team of the Week.
Written by Rich Allen
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