SPIRO BLOG: It’s up for grabs now
By M. Spiro
Once again the French title race looks like becoming Europe’s most intriguing. With PSG, Lyon and Marseille level at the top, Ligue1.com’s Matthew Spiro looks at the issues likely to be decisive between now and May.
Reasons to believe:
1. PSG are top and have got their perennial November crisis out of the way. A fortnight ago, Carlo Ancelotti was reportedly on his way out after failing to impress the Qatari owners. There were also claims the dressing-room was split in two, with Italian-speakers in one corner and French-speakers in the other. It looked like PSG would implode. Instead they reacted by playing the best football of the Ancelotti era so far.
2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (nearly) always wins the league.
3. Ancelotti has struck on a system that works. It is early in the year to throw the Christmas tree out, but that’s exactly what the Italian has done, dispensing with his favoured formation and opting for a more daring system that allows him to field four attacking players. Since they started lining up with Javier Pastore on the right, Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left and Jérémy Ménez in attack alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG have scored nine goals and conceded none. It is being called a 4-4-2 but isn’t really. Pastore and Ibrahimovic spend much of the time in central midfield, while Ménez and Lavezzi use their pace to dart in behind, often in central areas.
4. Lucas Moura is coming. And by all accounts, he is a bit good.
Reasons to worry:
1. Despite the probable departure of the temperamental Nenê, the potential for unrest remains considerable. Will local boy Mamadou Sakho be prepared to sit quietly and play second-fiddle to Thiago Silva and Alex, Ancelotti’s first-choice centre-back pairing? The same goes for Gregory van der Wiel should Christophe Jallet retain his place at right-back. Diego Lugano seems happy to keep schtum, but will other internationals like Momo Sissoko, Kévin Gameiro and Guillaume Hoarau settle for bit-part roles between now and June?
2. Is Javier Pastore’s heart really in it? The Argentine recently told an Italian publication he misses Italy and will sign for AC Milan “sooner or later”.
3. Marseille have no European commitments, while Lyon may rotate in the Europa League. PSG will expend a lot of energy in their Champions League campaign – at the expense of league points?
4. PSG have not won any of the three leagues games Ibrahimovic has missed. Will their title challenge stay on course if the Swede is absent for a significant period?
Reasons to believe:
1. The pressure is entirely on PSG. Should they fail to win the league it would be seen as a failure. Should OL finish second and qualify for the Champions League group stage it would be seen as a success.
2. For the first time in a long while there appears to be a tremendous team spirit at Stade de Gerland. Rémi Garde’s man-management has been superb: the experienced players are enjoying the extra responsibility they’ve been afforded while the youngsters are extremely motivated as they all know Garde will give them their chance. Promising talents like Alexandre Lacazette, Samuel Umtiti and Clément Grenier are really thriving under the former academy chief.
3. OL continue to churn out superb young talent. Youth graduates Umtiti, Grenier, Maxime Gonalons and Lacazette are rightly receiving plaudits, but watch out for the next wave: Rachid Ghezzal and Yassine Benzia look even better and – having impressed in the Europa League – could have an impact in the second half of the season.
4. Lisandro López has not won a league title yet with Lyon and is desperate to set that record straight. The captain is an inspirational figure on and off the pitch and will do everything in his power to keep Lyon in the title mix.
Reasons to worry:
1. It has been suggested that chairman Jean-Michel Aulas is ready to sell more top talent in January in a bid to improve the club’s finances. Should top-scorer Bafétimbi Gomis leave, it would be very difficult to see Lyon mount a serious challenge.
2. Rémy Vercoutre has done well since Hugo Lloris was sold, but he will not win as many games for Lyon as his predecessor did and has shown signs of weakness in recent weeks. His unsuccessful attempt to clear the ball with his feet instead of claiming it with his hands against Nancy in Week 17 resulted in Jordan Lotiès scoring and cost Garde’s men a point.
3. Michel Bastos looks to have lost his zip. The Brazilian has been injured this season and may just be taking time to get back to full fitness, but the Lyon fans are concerned. Though he has scored five goals in nine league appearances, his overall contribution in those games has been far less than in past campaigns. Lisandro has also been in and out of the team with injuries. Lyon need their two South Americans fit and firing.
4. Lyon’s summer business has produced mixed results. Steed Malbranque’s return has been an unmitigated success, yet neither Fabian Monzón nor Arnold Mvuemba have impressed. As a result, OL’s squad looks rather light – especially when compared to that of PSG.
5. Yoann Gourcuff continues to be a problem. One week he is underperforming, the next he is injured. Good displays from the €22m-euro man have been few and far between. With the playmaker in his 2009 form, OL could easily win the league, but 2009 is starting to feel like a long time ago.
OLYMPIQUE DE MARSEILLE
Reasons to believe:
1. The pressure is entirely on PSG. Should they fail to win the league it would be seen as a failure. Should OM finish second and qualify for the Champions League group stage it would be seen as a success.
2. The Africa Cup of Nations has been Marseille’s Achilles heels in recent times but may not penalise them so much this season. Jordan Ayew has not been picked by Ghana and Nicolas N’Koulou’s Cameroon have failed to qualify.
3. The club’s finances are looking healthier than at the start of the season and there is talk that funds will be made available to Élie Baup in January. Valenciennes playmaker Foued Kadir, who is out of contract next summer, has been linked and would be a fine acquisition if OM can swing the deal.
4. Despite being sidelined for seven weeks with a broken metatarsal, André-Pierre Gignac remains in good shape and his form hasn’t deserted him either. His winner against Toulouse last weekend was superb and suggested the ex-France striker could be a serious force in the second half of the season. Mathieu Valbuena is also enjoying his best season so far. If Valbuena and Gignac keep firing, maybe OM could go all the way.
Reasons to worry:
1. The squad is paper-thin. While Joey Barton has had a positive impact in his six league appearances, the other summer recruits have added little. Florian Raspentino is yet to start a league game, and defensive duo Lucas Mendes and Kassim Abdallah look like they need more time to acclimatise to Ligue 1.
2. The fans will not stand for many more home performances like the last two. OM conceded seven goals and scored just one in the defeats by Lyon and Lorient. Should they slump again at the Vélodrome against Saint-Etienne on Sunday, their notoriously demanding supporters may start losing faith and turn on the players.
3. When Valbuena doesn’t sparkle, OM seriously lack creativity.
4. Loïc Rémy is a pale shadow of the player that destroyed defences on a regular basis last season. Rémy was OM’s centre forward and their best player – not to mention a first-choice for France on the right wing – before injuring his thigh in May. He has struggled physically ever since and has been totally out of sorts when he has played this term. Rumours abound that Marseille would sell Rémy if a decent offer came in, but that would leave them terribly reliant on the injury-prone Gignac for goals.