SEASON REVIEW: Not only Neymar! The unsung heroes...
By A. Scott
Ligue 1 Conforama has been lucky to count Neymar Jr among its ranks this season, but behind the player of the year there have been plenty of unsung heroes. Andy Scott takes a look at some of them...
The experienced Brazilian international midfielder always looked like a bargain when Marseille picked him up last summer from VfL Wolfsburg for €8 million, and he has probably been the signing of the season. An inspirational figure on the field, OM fans quickly took to him and soon came up with a song in his honour.
Luiz Gustavo had contributed five goals from midfield before the final weekend, and indeed OM did not win any of the four Ligue 1 Conforama games which he missed. He featured in central defence towards the end of their UEFA Europa League run, and it is impossible not to wonder what might have been had he been able to exert his influence in his usual midfield role in the final against Atlético Madrid.
"I am very happy here. I am playing for a great team, with fantastic supporters, quality players and the right infrastructure to work properly," he told L'Équipe recently. "And the quality of life is very pleasant. Waking up every morning under a blue sky and sunshine, it's incredible. The passion that the people of Marseille have for football is marvellous."
Karl Toko Ekambi
Outside of the big four clubs, only Mario Balotelli scored more goals than Toko Ekambi, the leggy Cameroon international striker with Angers SCO. Seventeen goals was a fantastic return for the 25-year-old, and the only downside to his season is that he failed to find the net in his team's last six matches.
Paris-born Toko Ekambi's career has been on an almost constant upward curve - his form in the third-tier Championnat National with Paris FC earned him a move to FC Sochaux-Montbéliard in Ligue 2 in 2014. After 25 goals in two league campaigns there, he stepped up to the top flight in 2016.
His peformances last season, featuring eight goals in total as Angers reached the final of the Coupe de France, were enough to attract interest from elsewhere. But Toko Ekambi rejected a move to English Premier League newcomers Brighton and Hove Albion at the start of this season, and also opted against a mega-bucks move to China in January, preferring to stay and help Angers consolidate in the elite.
The winner of this year's Prix Marc-Vivien Foé - awarded by RFI and France 24 to the top African player - Toko Ekambi is set to move on this summer and bring in Angers a record fee in the process.
Yes they lost 8-0 to Paris Saint-Germain in January, but that aside Dijon FCO have been a credit to themselves and to Ligue 1 Conforama in 2017-18. Olivier Dall'Oglio's team, in just the club's third top-flight campaign, might have been tipped to struggle at the season's outset, but they were in not in the relegation zone at any point after Week 11.
A 10-game unbeaten home run at their Stade Gaston-Gérard from October to March was crucial in pulling them away from trouble, and Dijon have been great entertainers, even if they have had other heavy defeats against the likes of AS Monaco (1-4 and 4-0), EA Guingamp (4-0) and Olympique Lyonnais (2-5).
Dijon's defence (73 goals conceded) was the second-worst in the division after bottom club FC Metz, but their tally of 55 goals scored was bettered only by the top four. And in Kwon Chang-hoon they had a standout performer, a scorer of 11 goals. The South Korean would have been one to look out for at the World Cup were it not for an untimely injury, as he ruptured his Achilles tendon on the final day of the campaign.
Just being part of RC Strasbourg Alsace's squad this season was something special for Liénard. A native of Belfort in eastern France, he was playing for FC Mulhouse in the amateur fourth tier before being picked up by Strasbourg in 2013. After three seasons in the third-tier Championnat National, Liénard won promotion from Ligue 2 in his first season at that level a year ago, but surely did not expect to be anything more than a bit-part player this season.
Yet Liénard, who turned 30 in February, has been a star turn in his debut Ligue 1 Conforama campaign, his brilliant left foot helping him score five goals and set up five more. His stoppage-time free-kick that secured a 3-2 win over Lyon on the penultimate weekend, and sealed his side's survival in the process, was quite simply world class.
"I can't believe it. Dimitri Liénard, the peasant from Belfort, doing that, against Lyon...Even in my wildest dreams it was unimaginable for me to be able to do that with Strasbourg," he said after that game.
Lamouchi's achievements will largely go under the radar, with the coaches of the big four dominating the headlines. The likes of Lucien Favre, Gustavo Poyet and Claudio Ranieri might have regularly been talked about too, but Lamouchi has done an excellent job to lead Stade Rennais FC to fifth place, their highest finish since 2007. They will be in Europe next season for the first time since 2011-12.
It has therefore been a fine introduction to coaching in Ligue 1 Conforama for the former France midfielder, who had previously been in charge of the Ivory Coast and El Jaish of Qatar before being appointed to succeed Christian Gourcuff in Brittany in November with Rennes 10th at the time.
"I have not only been a coach for six months," said Lamouchi recently, with his time at Rennes notably featuring away wins against Lyon and PSG. "It is important to be credible so that the players adhere to what you are doing. It is one thing for them to think that you are capable of leading them, but it is another to actually do it."