Everything set for a title decider in France
It looked like there would be a host of clubs in the title race this year in Ligue 1 just over a month ago, but now there are only two names remaining – Marseille and Auxerre.
Bordeaux’s lack of squad rotation, or rather the inability to do so, finally caught up with them and last year’s champions are now even struggling to finish on a European place for next season.
Lyon have built their squad for a couple of seasons now with Europe being the main focus. It will remain to be seen if it turns out as a success with the return leg of Champions League semifinal coming up tomorrow. They certainly sacrificed the league for that.
New comers Montpellier tried their hardest, and for a long period of a time where the only one to put real pressure on Bordeaux, but they aren’t “new” anymore and opposition have found ways to stop them.
Lille will curse this years Africa Cup of Nations for taking away their top scorer Gervinho in a vital period of games. The Ivorian was Ligue 1 top scorer in the first part of the season with 11 goals, but since then he’s only managed a single goal. The current leader is Lorient’s Kevin Gameiro. Look out for his name being the most prominent in the summers transfer stories across Europe.
Marseille, who last month won their first title since winning the Champions League in 1993, beating Bordeaux in the League Cup final 3-1, have hugely benefited by having two games in hand for majority of the season.
The 8-time champions have caught rivals out by popping up just at the right time, near the end of the season, at the top of the table. The start to the season wasn’t that rosy, though.
Didier Deschamps was the new man in charge, after Eric Gerets’, who lead the team to 2nd place, contract ran out and the Belgian decided not to renew it. Dechamps was criticized by his direct style of football. After 10 rounds, even bottom team Grenoble were ahead of Marseille in “passes played”.
Summer record signing Lucho Gonzalez struggled with form, largely due to niggling injuries, which forced Deschamps to constantly change his formation. Also other summer signings like Eduard Cisse and Fernando Morientes looked all out of sort and got criticism.
The team bowed out of Champions League and without having any spectacular results in the league there was even talk about Deschamps leaving. But the former France captain stayed and it’s turned out to be a very good decision.
Marseille took the top spot of Ligue 1 on the last day of February and after a twelve game unbeaten run, including 10 wins, now look to be the favorites to lift the title.
Marseille will be up against Auxerre. The Burgundy side, who only have one title to their name, winning in 1996 under legendary Guy Roux, were in rich vein of form in late Autumn with 7 wins in a row, are a surprise contender.
They don’t have any standout names in their squad, they don’t play particularly nice style of football, but having 17 (that’s every other match!) clean sheets from the season, most kept by Olivier Sorin, has a major part on their success. And of course the team spirit created by Jean Fernandez.
Interestingly enough, Fernandez himself has come out and said that his side most definitely won’t win the title, whilst top scorer Ireneusz Jelen himself has said that the title is in everybody’s head as an aim.
But of course you can understand Fernandez’s humbleness, considering that since taking over in 2006, the 55-year old has seen his side finish twice on 8th place and 15th two seasons ago. With only 5 teams getting into Europe from France, it would be a huge boost for a team, currently probably most known for producing players, such as Phillipe Mexes, Djibril Cisse, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Bacary Sagna, Abou Diaby and of course Eric Cantona.
Now there are Olivier Sorin, Ireneusz Jelen, Adama Coulibaly and such, lead by inspirational captain Benoit Pedretti, who as a very gifted midfield player, never managed to make it big on the top level at Lyon and neither in Marseille. For him, no doubt, it’s a very special title race.
The two title contenders meet this Friday at Auxerre’s Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps. Marseille are currently leading with 71 points, while Auxerre have picked up 66. From the “big boys”, only Lyon have managed to take something against Auxerre at their place and that was way back at the beginning of the season. Marseille are enjoying a good run of form, but didn’t look quite like themselves at the weekend versus Saint-Etienne and they’ve got a tough run in.
The 96th French champion in football will be decided this week.