Ligue 1's surprise team of the season

Ligue 1 Conforama

Unsung heroes, unforeseen prodigies and comeback kings: the 2016-17 Ligue 1 season saw a constellation of surprise stars shine brighter than most… takes a closer look at the 11 players who have had radically different campaign to what was expected of them at the start of the season…

Goalkeeper: Yohann Pelé (Olympique de Marseille)

Long-time Marseille captain Steve Mandanda may have left for Crystal Palace three-and-a-half months before US businessman Frank McCourt arrived on the south coast with his billions, but OM were still expected to splash out on a new goalkeeper ahead of the new campaign.

Watch: Marseille frustrate Paris in Week 10's Classique

Now: Pelé, at 34 and with just 180 Ligue 1 minutes for OM under his belt, was thrown in at the deep end in the opening day 0-0 draw with Toulouse FC, and hasn't looked back since. The only Marseille player to have played the full 90 minutes in all 38 games this season, his 16 clean sheets - including one against champions Paris Saint-Germain in Paris in October - have helped propel the 1993 European champions to the cusp of continental qualification.

Right-back: Léo Dubois (FC Nantes)

Nantes finished 14th last season in Michel Der Zakarian's final campaign as Les Canaris' coach, and Dubois - a product of the club's famed youth academy - looked like a solid, if not spectacular, option at full-back. Where PSG's on-loan Youssouf Sabaly had two goals and an assist, Dubois - on the other flank - failed to contribute at the other end whatsoever.

Now: Dubois has blossomed into the most dangerous defender in the league. His seven assists from out wide are as many as Angel Di Maria has managed for PSG or Memphis Depay for Olympique Lyonnais, and nobody would be surprised if the 22-year-old built on his two France Under-21 caps with full international recognition in the coming months and years.

Centre-back: Christopher Jullien (Toulouse FC)

Toulouse needed a final-day 3-2 win over Angers SCO to preserve their 12-year stay in France's top flight last May. Further, Jullien wasn't even around for the show. The hulking 1m96' centre-back was seen as more brawn than brains, and had spent the season on loan at Dijon FCO in Ligue 2.

Now: Alban Lafont is being lauded - alongside AC Milan's Gianluigi Donnarumma - as the best teenaged goalkeeper in Europe, perhaps for a generation, but even he will be delighted to have Jullien marshalling the defence in front of him. Even Lyon in fourth have conceded more goals than Le Téfécé, and although Martin Braithwaite wears the captain's armband at the Stadium Municipal, there is no question who the boss at the back is.

Centre-back: Malang Sarr (OGC Nice)

Nice were getting ready to embark on a tilt at European qualification in Lucien Favre's maiden campaign as coach on the Côte d'Azur. Built on a bedrock of club captain Paul Baysse and Brazil international Dante, such ambitions didn't seem to be beyond Les Aiglons' reach. Less likely, however, was that a 17-year-old would crack the central-defensive duopoly.

Watch: Sarr marked his opening-day debut with the winner against Rennes

Now: The now-18-year-old Sarr started 25 games; only champions Monaco and second-place PSG  conceded fewer goals; and despite his relatively modest 1m82' frame, Sarr enjoyed ten clean sheets - including a 4-0 win over Monaco in September - chipped in with a goal and an assist at the "wrong" end of the pitch, and forced himself into full international conversation despite being born six months after France won the World Cup in the summer of 1998.

Left-back: Marçal (EA Guingamp)

Marçal arrived at Guingamp last summer after a frustrating stint at Benfica, which had seen the 28-year-old Brazilian farmed out on loan to Gaziantepspor in Turkey for the 2015-16 campaign without having made a first team appearance for the record Portuguese champions.

Now: Only Dubois has managed to match Marcal's seven assists among Ligue 1's defenders this term. The flying full-back has proved that he has the skill and accuracy to match his speed, whipping in deliveries that have led to fully 20 per cent of the Breton's goal haul.

Right wing: Loïs Diony (Dijon)

Diony proved plenty capable of cutting the mustard for Dijon in their successful promotion campaign in 2015/16, plundering 11 goals as the Côte-d'Or club booked their return to Ligue 1 after a five-year hiatus. The notion that the 24-year-old could repeat the feat while his club staved off relegation seemed rather far-fetched, though.

Now: Diony may have been playing up a level, but he has scored just as many goals, addinf eight assists for Olivier Dall'Oglio sides for good measure, making him responsible for a goal every 148 minutes he has played. That is an incredible haul when you consider that Dijon only escaped relegation by a single point.

Central midfield: Yoann Gourcuff (Stade Rennais FC)

Way back when, the younger Gourcuff had been seen as the natural long-term successor to Zinedine Zidane - the talisman of that France '98 World Cup win. With skill to burn and a calm-bordering-on-nonchalance that bamboozled opposition defenders, the 2007 UEFA Champions League winner with Milan had seen his career derailed by injury in recent years, and he had failed to start more than ten league games in a season since the 2013-14 campaign with Lyon.

Watch: Gourcuff conjurs the form of old with a wonder-goal against Guingamp in Week 21

Now: The midfield maestro has shrugged off the injuries and now acts as father and coach Christian Gourcuff's chief lieutenant on the pitch alongside club captain Pedro Mendes. His three goals and four assists in an until-recently unimaginable 2,300 minutes of top-flight football have left many in Brittany and beyond wondering whether he might yet fulfil his early potential two months inside his 31st birthday.

Central midfield: Morgan Sanson (Marseille)

Sanson started the term on Montpellier Hérault SC's books, looking to build on his six starts for La Paillade in 2015/16. A highly-rated France U21 international, a cruciate ligament injury meant the midfielder could only watch on as Jonas Martin and Bryan Dabo laboured in the middle of the park, with the Louis Nicollin-owned team only ensuring their top-flight status four weeks from the end of the season.

Now: Sanson has arguably been the best player for both Montpellier and Marseille inside a single Ligue 1 campaign. Three goals and seven assists in the first half of the season helped MHSC climb to 11th by the winter break, and one two-hour journey along the Mediterranean coast later has done little to hold up his progress, with the elegant yet bustling box-to-box midfielder doubling his assists tally and adding another goal to boot.

Left wing: François Kamano (Girondins de Bordeaux)

SC Bastia finished mid-table last term, with their tally of 50 points leaving them closer to European qualification than the relegation dog-fight. Kamano had only figured fleetingly for the Corsicans, though, with Floyd Ayité - now of Fulham - bossing the left-wing. Bordeaux's summer acquisition of the Guinean looked like an investment in the future more than anything.

Watch: Kamano's fine Henry impression against Caen in Week 26

Now: Kamano's combination of pace and power has seen him draw comparisons with former Monaco, Arsenal, Barcelona and France legend Thierry Henry. The 21-year-old - now a 15-time Guinea international - has had a direct hand in ten goals as FCGB have muscled their way into European contention, having finished one place below Bastia last term.

Striker: Steve Mounié (Montpellier)

Mounié had been on Montpellier's books since the age of 14, but unable to penetrate the first team after seven years he spent 2015/16 on loan at Nîmes Olympique in the second tier. Eleven goals in 33 games for a team that finished 14th was undeniably impressive, but the goal-burden was expected to be Casimir Ninga's this time around.

Ninga was ruled out for the season with a ruptured cruciate ligament nine games - and five goals - into the new season. Mounié was thrust into the limelight, and 14 goals and three assists later looks every inch the complete Ligue 1 striker. Standing 1m90' tall and boasting a deft touch, the now-22year-old has won more headers than any other player in the league.

Striker: Ivan Santini (SM Caen)

Caen drafted Santini in from Standard Liege last summer having seen 12-goal top scorer Andy Delort whisked away to Mexican side Tigres before returning home with Toulouse. A physically intimidating presence up front, Santini was nonetheless without international recognition since a spell in 2007 with the Croatia U19s.

Watch: Santini scored a brace in Caen's 3-2 win over Lyon in January

Now: Santini has scored 15 goals in his maiden Ligue 1 season, becoming the first Croatian to hit double figures since Dado Prso for Monaco back in 2003-04. That his haul is equal to that of Kylian Mbappé - also of Monaco - and Nice's Italy striker Mario Balotelli brings his feat into sharper focus: Caen finished a point above the drop zone, while Mbappé and Balotelli play for clubs who will compete for the Champions League next season.

Surprise XI: Pelé; Dubois, Jullien, Sarr, Marçal; Gourcuff, Sanson; Diony, Kamano; Mounié, Santini

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