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The Challengers to Paris Saint-Germain’s dominance in Ligue 1

The French Ligue 1 has been under some dominance at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain; but there again seem to be a couple of challengers looking to end the monopoly in French Football, writes Rich Allen.

Bielsa Sagnol

Before the 2014/15 Ligue 1 season kicked off, many, myself included, predicted Paris Saint Germain would stroll to a third consecutive le Championnat. It has therefore been a pleasant surprise to see that this hasn’t been the case with around a quarter of the season gone as PSG continue to make heavy work with finishing teams off. The men from the capital have become the draw specialists in the division with six stalemates in ten matches but it must be noted however that throughout their struggles they do remain the only unbeaten team in Ligue 1. Last season PSG, Monaco and Lille pretty much made the top three their own from fairly early on in the season. We therefore look at the three teams who are seeking to break up that party come the end of the season.

Marcelo Bielsa’s dependable Marseille

Many saw the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa as quite the coup when it was announced earlier in the year that El Loco was taking over at the Stade Velodrome. After a traumatic 2013/14 season which saw the demise of first Elie Baup and then Jose Anigo before the departure of fan favourite Mathieu Valbuena to Russia in the summer, a firm hand was needed to steady the ship. Steady the ship Bielsa has done and so much more to the point that even the most fervent Marseille fan could scarcely believe.

With only a couple of additions to the squad, Bielsa has transformed Marseille to the point they are almost unrecognisable from last season. It may have taken a couple of games for Bielsa’ tactics to sink in, as well as some tinkering from the man himself, but les Phoceens now seem to be combining all the key ingredients for a successful season.

P perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Marseille success this season has been the fitness and good health of the squad. Bielsa may be infamous for his strict and exhausting training regimes but there can be no denying their effect. Since week three, Marseille have been able to put out an unchanged eleven in every game, barring one change in week five. This stability in the first eleven has been so important with so many other teams needing to make changes each game. This means every player knows their position in the team and a deep understanding can be grown between each of them.

The biggest credit that should be given to Bielsa is the way he has managed to get the best out of a squad which is largely unchanged from the one which struggled so frequently last season. After an early season wobble on his return from injury, Steve Mandanda now looks back to his best, a point proved with is terrific display for France in their recent friendly win over Portugal. In defence, an area Marseille were so poor in last season, there have been massive improvements. Nicolas Nkoulou and Jeremy Morel have forged one of the strongest centre back pairings in the division; Morel especially is going through a monumental resurgence having been booed often by the home faithful in seasons gone by, the converted centre back is now a firm favourite with the locals following a regular run of fine displays. The full backs, Brice Djadjedje on the right and young Benjamin Mendy on the left have provided the necessary defensive qualities in addition to attacking threat.

Giannelli Imbula and Alaixys Romao have become a dependable shield in front of the defence with the former in particular being given the chance to push forward with two goals already this season a demonstration of that freedom. Imbula and Mendy are two young players whose confidence was clearly knocked with the club’s struggles last season so it is a joy to see them now back to their best. In front of them have been the three of Andre Ayew, Florian Thauvin and Dimitri Payet and it is the latter who has really flourished under Bielsa. The former Lille man didn’t have the greatest of first seasons with Marseille last campaign, but appears to have grasped the opportunity to take over from Valbuena. His fine displays this season have led to a recall to the national team as well as three goals and two assists already.

But Marseille’s man of the moment is undoubtedly Andre-Pierre Gignac; the Frenchman has been perhaps the biggest benefactor of the Bielsa revolution. With a new svelte physique, the number nine has started the season in electric form with nine goals in his first nine games. Gignac has clearly worked on his fitness which is paying dividends as he is thriving under the new attacking mentality Bielsa has implemented.

Outside of this now regular eleven, question marks do remain with regards to squad strength in depth. Defender Matheus Doria, midfielder Romain Alessandrini and forward Michy Batshuayi have been the main new arrivals but if injury does strike Marseille, especially to one of their more key players, it remains to be seen if their replacement can replicate the success. As we saw when Montpellier claimed a surprise Ligue 1 triumph in 2011/12 with Olivier Giroud, if your main source of goals stays fit then you can always be considered a threat.

With the now fully refurbished Velodrome providing a raucous and intimidating atmosphere, a manager who has the fans full support, especially after publically questioning the clubs senior management and players at the top of their game, Marseille are definitely in a position to challenge for at least second spot in Ligue 1 and maybe even push for a first league title since 2009/10.

Bordeaux and their debutant manager, Willy Sagnol

One of France’ most successful clubs, Bordeaux in recent years seemed to very much live up to their “Bored-eaux” moniker. Under Francis Gillot, it seemed les Girondins had wasted the foundations laid by Laurent Blanc after he led them to the Ligue 1 title in 2008/09. Something of a sleeping giant in recent years, it seems Bordeaux may have finally awoken under new coach Willy Sagnol, the former Bayern Munich and France right back joined the club in the summer after a spell as coach of the French under 21 squad. The appointment was met with a mixed reaction, especially after the club had been so heavily linked with former player Zinedine Zidane. There were those who saw it as a risky appointment as it would be Sagnol’s first club managerial role, but on the flip side there were those who saw Sagnol as a young coach who could bring a freshness to a club which had been underperforming for the last few seasons.

Those sceptics may now have been converted as Bordeaux have made a surprisingly excellent start to the season. They opened with three consecutive wins including a resounding 4-1 win over Monaco. Whilst they have lost two and drawn two of the subsequent six games, they still sit in second spot in the league.

Whilst Bordeaux haven’t been able to enjoy the luxury of putting out an unchanged team week after week as Marseille have, their strength has been the attitude of the squad. This has been crucial, especially in the second half of games as so many times this season they have fallen behind only to bounce back with a strong showing in the second period to take the points.

It is this lack of concentration in the first half that represents the biggest concern for Sagnol’s team as in six of their matches to date they have gone a goal down. In all but two of those games they have gone on to at least secure a point. Against the bigger teams however Bordeaux may find a comeback too overwhelming if their first half underperformance is exploited to a greater degree.

One thing that Bordeaux have mastered this season is the ability not to rely on one player for their goals with WahbiKhazri and CheickDiabate getting three goals each and Diego Rolan leading the way with four goals. The young Uruguayan has burst onto the scene this season having only played a handful of games in the last two campaigns. He has proven to be a quick, skilful and clinical finisher, something Bordeaux have severely lacked in the last few years.

In addition to the goalscoring trio, Sagnol has also been able to call upon three new recruits in defence who have all made very strong starts to their Ligue 1 careers. Nicolas Pallois joined in the summer from Ligue 2 Niort and has proven to be a very shrewd signing bringing a solidity to the heart of the defence. Sagnol used his Munich connections to secure the loan signing of Diego Contento who has gone on to make the left back spot his own. Tiago Ilori is the other new defensive signing having joined from Liverpool on loan. The Portuguese youngster has made a handful of outings and has also got on the scoresheet in the draw away to Saint-Etienne. With Mariano at right back, captain Ludovic Sane and Cedric Carrasso in goal completing the defensive unit, there is a strong foundation to the team.

In midfield, Bordeaux have the experienced duo of Jaroslav Plasil and Gregory Sertic who provide strength and tenacity in the centre of the pitch. To provide the flair they have the pace and trickery of Nicolas Maurice-Belay on the wing and emerging talent in the shape of Thomas Toure. The 20 year old put in a man of the match winning performance with a goal and assist in the win over Rennes to really announce himself as a name for the future.

As with many teams in Ligue 1, it is again the squad depth which may be Bordeaux’ downfall but they will also have to find an answer to their slow starts in games if they are to harbour ambitions of maintaining their top three position. Ultimately this will prove tough for Bordeaux but with a young manager at the helm a top five finish is easily within their grasp.

Lyon’s youthful squad

The days of Lyon walking to the Ligue 1 title, making the quarter finals and semi finals of the Champions League and beating teams such as Real Madrid may feel like a distant memory to many but to some there are green shoots of recovery at the Stade de Gerland. They may not be the sole powerhouse of French football anymore but a new generation of young players are emerging at the club to help try and bring the feel good factor back to Lyon.

2013/14 was a season of two halves in what would be Remi Garde’s final year with the club. A dreadful first half of the season, which saw the club drop as low as 14thgot the alarm bells ringing and ultimately a 5th place finish was deemed inadequate. Finishing behind local rivals Saint-Etienne  didn’t sit comfortably with the Lyon faithful and Hubert Fournier was brought in, under pressure to get a young, but talented side, firing on all cylinders from the get go.

Unfortunately for the former Stade de Reims coach that didn’t really happen as despite an opening day victory over Rennes, the club lost three league games in a row, including humiliating defeats to newly promoted Lens and Metz and were knocked out of the Europa League qualifying rounds by Romanian side FC Astra. Luck just wasn’t on Fournier and Lyon’ side though as injuries plagued his squad denying him the chance to play his strongest eleven, something which he has still yet to do.

The injury problems have troubled Lyon for quite a few seasons but seemed to really come to the fore this season with first team players Samuel Umtiti, Milan Bisevac, Henri Bedimo, Jordan Ferri, Nabil Fekir, YoannGourcuff and Clement Grenier all facing spells on the sideline to name just a few.

Slowly but surely though these players are starting to return from injury  and combined with the emergence of outstanding young players such as Fekir, Corentin Tolisso and Clinton N’Jie as well as the great form of captain Maxime Gonalons, goalkeeper Antony Lopes and star striker Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon are back to winning ways and making their way back up the table.

There is no doubt that when everyone is fully fit, Lyon have one of the strongest squads in Ligue 1 and with only a couple of key players still out injured, namely Grenier and Gueida Fofana, it is no coincidence Lyon have found their form. Since that losing streak ended, les Gones have won three and drawn two including a win over Monaco, a draw in Paris and a thumping 3-0 victory over Lille, a result which saw Lacazette hit his first Ligue 1 hat-trick to take him to seven goals for the season.

If Lyon can finally banish the injury curse and wrap their big name players in cotton wool they can make a very strong claim for a top three finish. A strong eleven from front to back with plenty of exciting talent, sprinkled with a dash of experience makes for a very successful blend in a team. If Fournier can keep a strong grip on the squad, the good times may not be too far away for the fans once again.

Ironically as with the other two teams we have mentioned, it is the lack of European football which may prove to be their advantage. We have seen with both PSG and Saint-Etienne especially that the distraction of European football can have an adverse effect on league form. Naturally it is still relatively early days but one thing seems to be clear, PSG just might not have it all their own way this season, a much needed competitive flavour added to the Ligue 1.

Written by Rich Allen

Rich Allen

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