French football is a strange mistress – at times it is fast-paced, skilful and end-to-end. At others, it is a comedy of errors with a cast of players who seem unable to control their limbs (Bakary Kone, I’m looking at you!).
As a bit of background, my interest in French football started in virtual form – Olympique Lyonnais were my team of choice on FIFA 2003 and, since then, I’ve kept an eye on their progress. In classic glory-hunting fashion, the success of OL at this time cemented my interest in the league as a whole. I went on to study French at University and saw football as a good way to practice my language skills – or, at least, that’s what I told myself. A year spent living in Lyon allowed me to experience Ligue 1 first-hand and, although this time saw the demise of OL as a championship contender, getting to see the likes of Karim Benzema at work was great fun.
But, enough of that, I must talk about Ligue 1. Fans of other European top divisions often deride it and, admittedly, it may have lacked global teams and global names in the past. However, thanks to Qatari (and, more recently, Russian) investment, this is changing. Paris Saint-Germain are rapidly becoming one of the major players in world football – they are walking the league this season and were unlucky to exit the Champions League, after a strong first-leg performance at the Parc des Princes. The likes of Edinson Cavani, LucasMoura , Thiago Silva and, lest we forget, Zlatan have taken the talent pool of the league to another level. Also consider AS Monaco, who have brought their own brand of tax-free billionaire action and have acted as another magnet for talent. They’ve paid their money and are seeing a strong return – not many teams could rise from Ligue 2 and see league challenge as a realistic option.
Whilst the rise of these teams is good for the marketing chaps at Ligue 1 HQ, it has left other teams with an almost impossible task. Olympique Marseille, Olympique Lyonnais, AS Saint-Etienne and Lille OSC would not like to admit it, but their race is now definitely for that final Champions League spot. Lille have coped best to date – their solid and unspectacular brand of football has served them well and they find themselves in control of third place as we enter the final weeks of the season. The rest of the group are fighting it out for fourth and a berth in the Europa League. St. Etienne may have been flagging a little of late but, going into Matchday 33, they have a 4 point advantage over OL.
At the other end of the table, the game is up for AC Ajaccio and it is just a case of waiting for relegation to be mathematically certain. In my opinion, this is a real shame and will reduce Corsican representation to just one club (SC Bastia, holding the fort well in mid-table). Football Manager fans will note the presence of goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa who, annoyingly for Ajaccio, will surely be snapped up over the summer. Valenciennes and Sochaux currently occupy the other relegation spots, with a tricky 6 point gap up to EA Guingamp in 17th place. The remaining matchdays will see a number of interesting ‘scraps’ at the bottom of the table and Guingamp shouldn’t be so sure of their survival.
Other notable performers so far this season, be they good or bad, have been Nantes and Montpellier. Ligue 1 winners in 2011/12, Montpellier have struggled since and find themselves in 15th position, within a clump of teams determined not to become embroiled in relegation struggles. However, they still have a solid squad and it would take some disaster for them to be relegated. As a counter to Montpellier, Nantes have performed well during their forty-fifth top-flight season and should see out the season in the comfort of mid-table. After a fantastic start, they predictably faltered and have gently dropped down the league. Despite this, Nantes will surely be happy with their first season back and it is pleasing to see a club with such a strong focus on young talent back in Ligue 1.
There you have it, I have waffled for long enough and must now hope that this ‘brief’ summary has helped to allay the notion that Ligue 1 is the inferior sibling of the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A. With the rise of PSG and Monaco, along with the older guard of Marseille, St. Etienne, Lille, Lyon and Bordeaux, Ligue 1 should continue to provide an exciting alternative to the other major competitions and I look forward to providing a little more commentary over the coming months.
© Tom Berry, 2014