Following my earlier introduction, it is time I considered the action from Matchday 33. It was an interesting set of fixtures, with games often pitting top half against bottom half. On paper, the tie of the round looked to be OL – PSG (Stade Gerland, Sunday) and it was definitely an intriguing match. However, it was a Sud Derby that saw the most dramatic action – this being between Montpellier and OM (Stade de la Mosson, Friday).
The game saw OM watched from the stands by potential new manager, Marcelo Bielsa. He will undoubtedly have been pleased with the end result, but the defending might be cause for concern. Wherever Marseille finish this season, it would be interesting to see the Velodrome become the new home of Bielsism. If they become anything like his Athletic team, it’ll be very entertaining for the league and such a manager will surely be fuelled by the passion of the OM supporters.
Friday saw a topsy-turvy 90 minutes – a game of two halves, if you will. A flurry of goals in the second half goals culminated in a last minute winner from French international, Dimitri Payet. The ex-St. Etienne man helping to keep the pressure on Les Verts, in the race for fourth spot. It was an important victory for Marseille and drew them level with OL, before Les Lyonnais faced PSG on Sunday evening.
Whilst fourth place is yet to be secured, third spot is a little more certain following this week’s action. Going into Saturday’s games, Lille were in control of the position and victory in the Derby du Nord would see them all but certain of cementing a berth in next season’s Champions League. Lille went into the game unbeaten for nine games, with Valenciennes gaining only 1 point from their last three games. This should have been a procession, you might think, but that’s not Lille’s style.
Gone are the days of Yohan Cabaye, Eden Hazard and Gervinho. The flair may have wilted but, as always with Lille, the action was efficient and effective (if a little unspectacular). It is a hard-working approach that has served them well this year – Les Dogues may have a weak return of 37 goals in 32 games, but this has also seen them only concede an impressive 20 goals at the other end. Florent Balmont epitomises their style – his scheming and ankle-snapping keeps them ticking over in midfield – whilst the likes of Salomon Kalou provide glimmers of attacking flair.
Lille dominated the possession from the start, with Kalou striking the post early in the first half. However, despite their dominance, Lille were open to the occasional counter attack and on-loan Majeed Waris looked a real talent for the troubled Valenciennes side – they will really need him to be firing accurately if they are to have any hope of staying up this season.
60 minutes passed and, still, no goals. It was a solid performance from both teams, but the game lacked flair. Cruelly for Valenciennes, it was after one their rare attacks broke down that Lille finally struck. Les Dogues countered with real pace (yes, Lille pace!) and, after Kalou almost fluffed the pass, another chance seemed to have petered out. However, Divock Origi found space for the angled shot and, in yet more cruelty for Valenciennes, the ball struck captain Carl Medjani’s boot and found its way into the far corner. Was the goal a little cruel? Yes. Was it deserved? Yes.
From that point, it was a case of Les Dogues being professional seeing the game out. Valenciennes withdrew Abdul Majeed Waris and brought on young Jean-Christophe Bahebeck to seek a way back into the match. Bahebeck is held in high regard, but it was a lot of pressure for such young shoulders and the team were unable to fashion a break-through. In the end, it was a predictable result and should see Lille secure in third. For Valenciennes, the struggle for survival continues.
Given the Lille result, the top three positions are all but decided and the major battle is now for fourth position. Sunday afternoon saw St. Etienne drop points away to Stade de Reims. It took an injury-time goal, from ex-Lyon defender, Francois Clerc, to secure a point for Les Verts. This slip-up would allow OL to close the gap on fourth spot, if they could condemn PSG to only their second defeat of the season.
As mentioned, on paper, this is the tie of the round and provides a dress-rehearsal ahead of the Coupe de la Ligue Final, which takes place next weekend. Whilst this tie held a lot more importance for Lyon than it did for the champions-elect, both teams were looking to bounce back from midweek disappointment – PSG succumbed to an away goals defeat at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, whilst Lyon lost out to Juventus in the Europa League. It would have been reasonable to suggest that both sides could have been suffering from a bit of a European hangover.
With PSG still missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Lyon unable to call on Clement Grenier, this game would allow us to compare two sides that are approaching their futures with two distinctly different philosophies. PSG, the cash-rich global brand of French football, were able to rest a number of players and still field a team of superstars. Lyon, on the other hand, have become more frugal in recent years and have a strong focus on products from their impressive youth system. They are lucky to be able to rely on such an approach and their youth centre, Tola Vologe. So strong is the youth setup that Lyon are second only to Barcelona’s La Masia setup in the number of professional players produced. The success of previous years is gone and, under the guidance of Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon are pumping all their funds into the construction of their new stadium. Once built, it will make Lyon the only club in Ligue 1 to own 100% of their stadium. However, this investment has necessitated the focus on young talent and, if they continue to develop, OL could have a strong future.
Other than the result, the match went largely as expected. PSG dominated possession, securing around 70% of play during the first half, forcing a number of a crucial saves out of Anthony Lopes and having a goal correctly disallowed. However, the Parisians seemed tired after their recent trip to London and were unable to create many more chances. Lyon’s performance was based on solidity, an attribute embodied by the midfield trio of Maxime Gonalons, Jordan Ferri and Arnold Mvuemba. From those foundations, Lyon were able to break on occasion and caused the PSG defence a number of issues. It was an approach that paid off, much to the delight of the home support, when young midfielder Ferri curled home from the edge of the area. It was a delightful finish and testament to the faith Remi Garde has placed in this young squad.
The second-half saw more of the same, with PSG controlling possession and Lyon remaining solid in all areas. As the game wore on, Laurent Blanc threw on Lucas, Jeremy Menez, and Adrien Rabiot in an attempt to get an equaliser. The extra attacking talent almost paid off, with Lopes reacting well to prevent chances from Thiago Motta and Javier Pastore. In the end, solidity and hard work paid-off for Lyon and they secured an important 3 points. St. Etienne’s draw meant that Lyon have closed the gap to 2 points and will be hoping to take advantage of Les Verts’ stuttering form during the coming weeks. For PSG, the loss means they will have to wait a little longer to be crowned champions, especially as Monaco laboriously overcame Rennes to keep up some distant pressure. For OL and PSG, it remains to be seen whether anything will change for next week’s Cup Final.
This match saw the end of the weekend’s action and there is plenty still to play for at the top and bottom of the league. Sochaux’s win and Guingamp’s loss add more intrigue to the last five games of the season for those fighting relegation. Week 35 will see Guingamp host Valenciennes, in a proverbial ‘six pointer’ – a tie that could secure the fate of both clubs. In the race for 4th spot, St. Etienne may have the kindest run-in but will be looking to reverse their stumbling form of recent matches – Lyon’s visit to Marseille, in Matchday 36, could well decide who has the greatest chance of ousting Les Verts from the final European position.
© Tom Berry, 2014