Saturday, January 03, 2009

League Spotlight: France / Ligue 1 / Le Championnat

Our first League Spotlight of the year focuses on France as Some People Are On The Pitch checks out Ligue 1 and asks the vexed question 'Can anyone challenge Lyon for the title?' Then, once we've answered with an emphatic 'Yes', we'll have a look at some of the other great clubs in Le Championnat, a league so good they named it twice.

It is impossible to start any round-up of French football with any other team except Lyon (seriously - I checked). It's also illegal for any Englishman to write about the French without referring to at least one tired cliché based on a national stereotype, so be warned.

The current French champions are leading the table once more, despite a recent blip in form. Recent defeats to Nantes and PSG plus goalless draws with Marseilles and Valenciennes has given the pretenders to their throne some hope. However, OL entered the Christmas break with a win at Caen. Furthermore with the Champions League group stages now successfully negotiated, top scorer Karim Benzema and the gang have a clear run until late February which should be plenty of time in which to get a stack of points under their belts.

One of the more interesting facts about Lyon's seven year 'Reign of Terror' is that they've gone through four different coaches in that time. Claude Puel is the latest, replacing Alain Perrin. You'd think that consistency at the coaching level would have been key to their success. Some credit should got to the Lyon board who, no doubt, have put their Champions League revenue to good and maintained their dominance. Another factor could be the decline of their rivals.

It has been a decidedly ropey 21st Century for Marseille. Once the daddies of French football, OM's decline can be traced back to the misdeeds of former president Bernard Tapie. Under the charismatic businessman, Marseille won the European Cup in 1993 (beating AC Milan in the Final). Unfortunately, allegations of corruption and match fixing meant the club were stripped of their French championship and were subsequently relegated. Worse was to follow after they signed former Millwall and Chelsea striker Tony Cascarino.

Since then, Marseille have never been able to hit the heights of before. In the early noughties they finished fifteenth for two consecutive years and have only finished in the Champions League places three times since the turn of the decade, two of those occasions being the last two seasons. Currently, OM lie fifth in the table, only three points off the leaders.

Above them are Paris Saint Germain. The capital's only top flight club are perennial under-achievers and rarely live up to the expectations that befit a club in their location. While they have done OK in the cup competitions, the closest PSG have come to winning the league was in 2000 and 2004 when they finished second. However, coach Paul Le Guen has slowly turned the club around and while a tilt at the top spot seems unlikely, they will fancy themselves to finish in those precious top three places.

That is, of course, if they can get past Stade Rennes who have only lost once so far this season. Rennes are on a roll, however their greatest concern is all those draws. Ten of their 19 games have ended in stalemate and coach Guy Lacombe will need to get a little more out of them if they are to truly live the dream.

Just one point above Rennes in second are Bordeaux. Laurent Blanc's team have enjoyed their season in the Champions League. Assuming they can keep hold of their manager, Bordeaux look well placed to challenge Lyon's hegemony.

Another team to look out for is St Etienne. This famous name of the past and ten times League Champions are not the force they were. However they enjoyed a brief renaissance last season and finished fifth, qualifying for the UEFA Cup. Unfortunately Les Verts had a terrible start to the season and have lost 12 games so for this campaign, only one less than bottom club Le Havre. Despite all his good work last time around, their coach Laurent Roussey was sacked and replaced by Alain Perrin. To his credit the former Pompey boss is turning things around and Saint-Etienne have one three from their last four. Nevertheless, they sit perilously above the drop zone with only Valenciennes , Sochaux and Le Havre beneath them.

Notable players in France include the aforementioned Benzema at Lyon along with Hatem Ben Arfur at Marseilles. Ligue 1's top scorer is Andre Pierre Gignac who plays for Toulouse. There is, however, a fantastic story in 30 year old striker Steve Savidan at Caen.

Savidan was a journeyman lower division striker for many years. In 2004 he pitched up at Valenciennes who were a third tier club at the time. Three seasons and forty two goals later, Savidan was a top flight striker and moved to Caen in a deal worth around £4 million. In November last year he made his debut for France as a substitute in Les Bleus' 0-0 draw with Uruguay. Quite a story.

Are you a fan of Ligue 1? Who is your team in France and which players do you rate? Fill in the gaps in our knowledge and leave us a comment...

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