SPIRO: My 2016 memories
By M. Spiro
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ousmane Dembélé, Malang Sarr and Mario Balotelli all feature as Ligue1.com's Matthew Spiro looks back at a year to remember.
When I look back at the last 12 months, my fondest and most vivid memories come from the summer. Between June 10 and July 10, like so many in France, I was captivated by EURO 2016. For one month, security fears were replaced by passion and emotion as the hosts battled with skill and determination all the way to the Stade de France showpiece.
From the moment Dimitri Payet unleashed an unstoppable strike in to the top corner against Romania, to that agonising period of extra-time in which Eder made history for Portugal, the French people lived and breathed football, loved and admired Didier Deschamps' never-say-die team, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Ligue 1 fans have been booing Lille's Eder ever since, yet in truth there was no bitterness or shame in defeat. It was a wholly positive experience for the nation, and the generation inspired by Antoine Griezmann evoked powerful memories of 1998.
It was also a welcome injection of excitement at the end of a domestic season that became a possession for imperious PSG. The capital club were brilliant, winning the league by 31 points and completed a second successive domestic treble. This season is very different and with Monaco, Nice and Lyon all in contention, we are set for a thrilling title race. 2017 will surely serve up some fantastic games and exciting times. But before the campaign recommences on January 13, here are my best memories from 2016.
Lyon enter a new era: Lyon 4-1 Troyes (January 9)
This was the day Olympique Lyonnais inaugurated their magnificent stadium and signalled the end of Jean-Michel Aulas' biggest battle as OL president. The club's owner since 1987 needed to lobby, negotiate, insist and plan for more than a decade in order to realise his stadium dream. Getting past the immeasurable tangle of red tape and some stubborn local opposition represented an enormous challenge and a terribly time-consuming, demoralising process. Yet Aulas kept on plugging away to ensure that OL became the first French club to take 100 percent charge of their own super-modern stadium. The fact that homegrown striker Alexandre Lacazette netted the first goal at the Parc OL, and Rachid Ghezzal - who grew up a couple of hundred metres away - added the icing to the cake in a 4-1 success over Troyes, capped a wonderful and historic day for Lyon. This season has been problematic so far, but in the long-term OL - with their stunning 60,000-seat arena - will now be able to compete at the very highest level.
Ligue 1 unleashes a new star: Rennes 4-1 Nantes (March 6)
Every year the French league produces a handful of brilliant youngsters. Occasionally it unleashes a veritable superstar. After Eden Hazard and Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembélé looks like the latest teenager capable of taking Europe by storm. When I first watched Dembélé I was struck by dribbling skills, his elastic-like legs and the way when he accelerated he appeared to glide effortlessly away from opponents. On reflection, however, the proof of his class is in the stats. Not only did Dembélé dazzle for Rennes in his debut campaign, he produced as well. In 26 appearances, he notched 12 goals and five assists, a remarkable return for someone so young. My lasting memory of a player who has since joined Borussia Dortmund will be his hat-trick in the derby against Nantes. This is the biggest game of the season for Rennes, yet Dembélé was totally unaffected by the pressure. His decision-making is fantastic and I'm fully expecting his progression to continue abound in Germany. But Ligue 1 fans shouldn't worry - there's more where he came from. This season, Kylian Mbappé, Malang Sarr, Alban Lafont and Maxime Lopez are all staking strong claims to become Ligue 1's next big thing.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's farewell: PSG 4-0 Nantes (May 12)
Not everybody loves Ibrahimovic as much as the Swede loves himself. Yet his impact on PSG is not open for debate. 156 goals and 12 trophies in four seasons should have been enough to silence any skeptics. Amazingly, a few still lingered. Paris' failure to go beyond the Champions League quarter-finals was the stick many doubters used to beat the striker with. Look at PSG today, however, you see what a big hole he has left. Yes, Edinson Cavani is scoring goals, but Paris are no longer the same team. They no longer have that aura and they no longer have that figure of absolute authority. Personally, I am not one of the doubters. I loved every minute of his Ligue 1 career and believe he contributed as much to the development of the league as he did the emergence of PSG. Stopping the match in the tenth minute, against Nantes, in order for the stadium to rise as one to offer its appreciation was a unique measure. It felt a bit silly, a bit unfair on Nantes and, frankly, a bit pointless. But this is Zlatan. From the moment he arrived in France, he did things differently. He didn't adapt to France. France adapted to him. As he did in his Parc des Princes debut, he scored two goals against Nantes that day. What he did in between was just sensational. So, Zlatan, thanks for the memories. It's been fun and we miss you. But not that much. Because now you've gone, we have a title race again.
Sarr provides fitting tribute: Nice 1-0 Rennes (August 14)
EURO 2016 was not just special here because Les Bleus did well. It was also welcome relief for a nation that has been rocked and saddened by terrorism. The interlude didn't last long. Indeed it was both tragic and depressing when the city of Nice was struck by a dreadful attack just four days after the competition had finished, 86 people being killed. Football can never heal the pain of such an tragedy, but the tributes paid by both Nice and Rennes in the opening game of the season on August 14 were poignant, respectful and deeply touching. It was the first public gathering in the city since the attack and it was difficult not to feel moved during the emotional minute's silence at the Allianz Riviera. Not surprisingly in the circumstances, the game was poor. But the fact that one of Nice's own sons, the 17-year-old youth-team graduate Malang Sarr, netted the only goal felt appropriate. It at least gave this stricken city a moment of happiness, no matter how fleeting. We didn't know it at the time but that 1-0 win proved the start of something special. Nice finished 2016 as France's autumn champions, and I'm sure I'm not the only one wishing this town and this football club all the very best for 2017.
Monaco show title credentials Monaco 3-1 PSG (August 28)
The penny might not have dropped straight away but this match may well prove a turning point in Ligue 1's battle for supremacy. Twelve months previously, Paris had eased to a 4-0 success at Stade Louis II, swatting aside any suggestion they might be fallible in 2015-16. This time, however, Leonardo Jardim's team refused to be bossed around. Still finding their feet under Unai Emery, Paris were pushed on to the back foot by an aggressive and imposing Monaco. New defensive recruits Kamil Glik, Djibril Sibidé and Benjamin Mendy were superb, the latter two in particular demonstrating Monaco's new-found hunger to attack by bombing up the flanks at every chance. At the halfway stage of the season, Monaco are not only above PSG, they have outscored the champions by 18 goals. Their threat to PSG's domestic domination is very real, and the return match at the Parc des Princes in late January promises to be electric.
Mario is still super: Nice 4-0 Monaco (September 21)
I'll be honest: I didn't believe for a minute that Mario Balotelli would be a success at Nice. Watching the Italian train back in early September, he looked uninterested and barely broke in to a jog during the five-a-side. At least he stayed behind at the end of that session to practice some free-kicks. A dozen or so Nice supporters watched on with keen anticipation. They were somewhat underwhelmed though when Super Mario scuffed a few and hit the others way over the crossbar. He has continued to spend most of his time walking when he's played, too. Yet clearly his mindset is positive, his focus is sharp, and his class most definitely remains intact. He scored two on his debut against Marseille, then destroyed Monaco in the derby. I commentated that one and loved every minute of his performance. The power, the coolness but above all the class he showed in front of goal truly stood out. When you have played for Inter, Manchester City, Liverpool and AC Milan, playing for Nice must feel like a remarkably pressure-free experience. That's the way it looks too. So, can super-cool Mario now inspire Les Aiglons to the title?