PSG continue to exert their dominance at the top of Ligue 1, but there is still plenty of intriguing sub-plots in France ahead of the weekend
COMMENT By Robin Bairner
The halfway point of the Ligue 1 season is fast approaching, but Paris Saint-Germain already look nailed on to win a fourth straight league title after moving 13 points clear of Caen.
However, Laurent Blanc’s side were held to a scoreless draw away against Angers on Tuesday and face a quick turnaround as they meet fifth-placed Nice on Friday night . Meanwhile, Lyon play Stephane Moulin’s men, who now lie third, on Saturday afternoon.
Caen, who presently sit second, will attempt to maintain their remarkable start to the season by overcoming Lille, while Monaco and Saint-Etienne play Bastia and Rennes respectively as they attempt to make ground on the Champions League places. Improving Marseille welcome Montpellier to the Stade Velodrome on Sunday as they attempt to make up for lost time.
PSG aside, Ligue 1 has been devilishly unpredictable so far this season, and Goal takes a look at the major issues before these weekend fixtures…
IT’S A BIG WEEK FOR…MARSEILLE
Slowly but surely, Marseille have been starting to hit their stride again, but their home form has persistently let them down when it has mattered. Nevertheless, they approach Sunday afternoon’s fixture at Stade Velodrome against Montpellier in confident mood, having won six of their previous eight games – the kind of form expected of OM before the season started.
Michy Batshuayi and winger Georges-Kevin Nkoudou have led the way for them offensively, but Remy Cabella’s contributions have grown steadily more impressive after a slow start in Provence following his summer move from Newcastle. Never the most prolific of scorers, Cabella had been frustratingly profligate in previous encounters but was the matchwinner in midweek against Rennes, as he scored the only goal of the game midway through the first half.
“This goal will do me good and will do the team good,” he said after the match. “Tonight we saw a great Marseille team.
“If we can win our matches between now and the Christmas break, we’ll see Marseille back in the upper part of the standings.”
Meanwhile, head coach Michel is hopeful that OM can continue their recent improvement: “The team is improving day by day and it’s not a surprise to me that we’re back in the top half of the table.”
It is in matches such as Sunday’s that the Provence side need to perform if they are to ultimately challenge for the top three this season, though. Marseille have won only two of their previous eight home Ligue 1 fixtures this term – and none of their last five. Another slip on Sunday would really stall their momentum just as they appear to be getting up to speed.
DON’T MISS… A BATTLE FOR THE PODIUM
While Olympique Lyonnais sit fourth in Ligue 1, they have been one of the real disappointments of the season to date as they have failed to replicate the type of form that saw them push Paris Saint-Germain all the way last term. In the process, they have also flopped in Europe to such an extent that they are already guaranteed to be out of continental competition by the time 2016 starts.
The flip side to this has been the achievements of Angers, who won promotion from Ligue 2 last season and have proven to be formidable opponents in the top flight. Having established themselves thanks to a superb defensive record, the men from western France have thrived with a counterattacking style in the opening weeks of the season, suffering only three defeats from 16 games and conceding only eight times in the process.
They were magnificent in the midweek draw against PSG, in a match that was deemed to be their biggest in a generation.
They went into the midweek encounter with a bullish attitude and that was reflected on the field. Though they rode their luck a little as their guests twice struck the woodwork, they had chances to win the game themselves.
“I hope we bite this match like we’ve bitten into Le Championnat since the start of the season,” Moulin said before that clash.
“For us, this is the match of the season and we want to add a gloss onto what we’ve achieved so far. After that, there is what we want to do and what we can do. We are full of good intentions against this team, but the truth always comes out on the field.”
The truth, on that occasion, was that Angers were every bit as deserving of a point as the champions. Now their big week takes them to last season’s runners up, and with a more-than-respectable away record this term – four wins and a draw from seven matches – they will again be hopeful of an upset.
WATCH OUT FOR… LIGUE 1’S YOUNGEST EVER KEEPER
When he made his debut last weekend, Toulouse goalkeeper Alban Lafont became the youngest ever player in his position to turn out in the top flight. It proved to be a successful outing for the 16-year-old, too, as he kept a cleansheet to help Dominque Arribage’s side to their first victory since the opening day of the season.
The men from the Pink City have had numerous headaches in goal this term, with summer signing Mauro Goicoechea having proven to be something of a flop. Penalty-saving specialist Ali Ahamada, meanwhile, continues to be little use from more regular situations, so drastic action was taken to call Lafont, who had only two reserve team appearances to his credit previously.
In truth, it was a rather quiet debut for the teenager, as opponents Nice were reduced to 10 men with little more than 30 minutes played. Aside from one sharp early stop from Jeremy Pied, he was relatively untroubled on a night to remember for the youngster.
That was followed up by a man-of-the-match display in midweek against Troyes, as Toulouse powered to a vital 3-0 success for their battle against the drop.
At 16 years 10 months and five days, he beat Anthony Mandrea’s record, with the Nice goalkeeper three days older when he faced Bordeaux in November 2013.
THE BIG ISSUE… ANOTHER ZLATAN RECORD?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic stands on the brink of making more history for Paris Saint-Germain. When he scored from the penalty spot in last Saturday’s emphatic 4-1 success over Troyes, he drew level with Mustapha Dahleb to become the club’s joint all-time top Ligue 1 scorer. Now he has his sights set on breaking that record, which has stood for over 30 years.
Even more impressive is that Zlatan has achieved his goals tally in double quick time. While Algeria midfielder Dahelb required over 300 top-flight matches to score his 85 goals, Ibrahimovic, who has already surpassed Dominique Rocheteau this season, has played only 101 games.
With his contract up at the end of the season, Ibrahimovic continues to be wooed by many suitors, with West Brom’s Jonas Olsson, an international team-mate, urging the striker to make the move to the Premier League.
“He has played under Mourinho before and the only place where he’s not 100% appreciated is in the UK,” he said.
“I think he can play for any team in this league – he is still that good.”
Wherever Ibra’s future may lie beyond May, he seems determined to take with him as many of PSG’s records as possible.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
It is rare for footballers to speak so frankly, yet few would disagree with Ezequiel Lavezzi’s recent comments in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, during which he claimed PSG are far too good for Ligue 1.
Boasting a huge 13-point advantage at the summit of the standings after only 15 matches, Laurent Blanc’s men will defend their crown once again barring the most incredible collapse in French sporting history – and the Argentine certainly does not see that happening.
“It is useless to hide the fact that PSG are too strong for other Ligue 1 clubs,” he said.
“Our challenge now is to find the motivation, even if there are no other teams capable of rivalling us. And because of this, I think that the squad has done a great job of staying focused.”
Lavezzi hinted in the same interview that he could depart the Parc des Princes in the summer: “It will be my last contract and I want to go to a team that motivates me. But I will also think of the city and quality of life.
“Today I am closer to leaving than staying, even if in this business you never know. Maybe I’ll stop everything, and go end my career in Argentina.”
Life in France, it seems, has become just a little too easy for El Pocho.