SPIRO BLOG: Going down with a fight
By M. Spiro
With eight teams still worrying about their top-flight status, the relegation dogfight will be fierce – and only the boldest will survive, predicts Ligue1.com’s Matthew Spiro.
"The last round of matches was... a little bit... how should I say? Bizarre," ventured Carlo Ancelotti, left eyebrow raised inquisitively. The former AC Milan and Chelsea manager is still getting used to life in a league where any team can beat any team, and often does.
In Week 29, only one side in the top half secured a victory – Lorient beating Brest. Elsewhere, relegation-threatened Bastia thrashed title-hopefuls Lyon 4-1, bottom-club Nancy saw off fifth-placed Nice, and Evian-Thonon Gaillard won away to a Lille side that had previously picked up 15 points from 15. Bizarre indeed.
And yet anyone who watched those games will know that the results were entirely logical. Bastia were rewarded for taking risks and being brave. They out-fought and out-gunned their high-profile opponents. As OL coach Rémi Garde pointed out: "The team fighting against relegation wanted it more than the team fighting at the top."
At the bottom, there is no room for complacency. The pace is picking up and anybody who starts to stutter now will be left behind. Drawing is no longer good enough for the likes of Nancy, Troyes and Sochaux.
In France's top tier, the difference in quality between the teams is smaller than in other major European leagues. Therefore, when Bastia fire on all cylinders against a below-par Lyon, the result is a comprehensive win for the Corsicans. In Florian Thauvin and Wahbi Khazri, Bastia had the most skillful attackers on the pitch, and had Anthony Modeste been more ruthless the scoreline would have been far more embarrassing.
Bastia's defending hasn't always been good this season, but their ability to score goals will, I think, ensure they stay up. So far, they have scored the same number as Marseille.
Likewise I have a hunch that Troyes – who are five points from a position of safety – will also survive. They've thrown away an awful lot of leads, yet Jean-Marc Furlan's side play attractive, attacking football and I expect them to win more matches than the likes of Nancy, Reims and Brest between now and the end of May.
The performance that most impressed me was Evian's away to Lille. The confident hosts stormed into an early lead through Salomon Kalou and it initially looked as though they'd win easily. Evian, however, showed really quality going forward and when the evergreen Cédric Barbosa fed Saber Khlifa to equalise, the complexion of the game changed.
The excellent Khlifa – who now has nine league goals in just 13 starts and four sub appearances – proved a constant menace. But it was not only the Tunisian. Unusually for a team playing away, Evian started with two in attack, Kévin Berigaud partnering Khlifa, and their bold coach Pascal Dupraz sent on a third forward, Yannick Sagbo, early in the second half.
Suddenly Lille found themselves on the back foot, pushed deep inside their own territory by Evian's high, aggressive pressing game. The tactic of playing 4-3-3 away from home was daring, but it also proved defensively sound.
Teams that sit back at Lille and allow Rudi Garcia's men to find their rhythm are asking for trouble. Evian did the opposite. Midway through the second half, Sagbo's pressure forced a corner from which Evian scored the winner.
That Evian display was a fine example of shrewd tactics and positive thinking winning the day. Lille surely didn't expect their struggling opponents to line up with three attackers and to go for their throat. Those three unexpected points have done Evian the world of good – as well as offering a useful blueprint for their relegation rivals to follow.