What Can We Expect in the Second Half of the Ligue 1 Season?
The first half of the Ligue 1 season proved two things: that the title will remain ensconced at the Parc des Princes and that nothing else is certain. Although Parisian noses have been bloodied more than was expected – PSG lost three of their first 12 games, having last season gone undefeated until February – Thomas Tuchel’s side go into the second half of the season with a seven-point lead at the top of the table. Behind them, however, there are many questions to be answered.
The first of them centres on Marseille. Having gone eight games without a defeat, André Villas-Boas’s team sit second in the league. This is a vast improvement on last season, when Rudi Garcia’s reign disintegrated slowly. The end of the off-key PSG tribute act unfortunately titled “the champions project” was signalled by the departures of Mario Balotelli, Adil Rami and Luiz Gustavo last summer. Gustavo had quickly become a cult hero as the club reached the Europa League final in 2018 and Balotelli’s goals guided them to a fifth-place finish last season, but these players represented the expensive, ageing signings of an era when hype and past glories were prioritised over a coherent transfer policy.
Under Villas-Boas, Marseille are not the brash, swaggering juggernaut craved by the fans, but they are organised, quietly efficient and difficult to beat. Steve Mandanda, reinstalled as captain, has enjoyed his best season since his ill-fated spell at Crystal Palace. Dimitri Payet has his eye on a Euro 2020 spot, so his form has exploded. Valentin Rongier has added control to the midfield since his under-the-radar arrival from Nantes. And Darío Benedetto, who replaced Balotelli, has provided steel and intensity in attack. However, false dawns are what Marseille do best and it remains to be seen whether the quiet revolution taking place under Villas-Boas becomes a genuine turning point.
Surprisingly, Rennes are Marseille’s closest challengers for second place, having won seven of their past eight games. The challenge for the manager, Julien Stéphan, is to maintain their form now that their Europa League adventure has ended. The same goes for Lille, who sit fourth in the table at the top a group of 11 teams separated by just six points.
Nantes (fifth), Reims (sixth), Angers (eighth) and Strasbourg (11th) have all been here before. They have fewer resources than a few of the clubs below them and are not expected to challenge regularly for a top six spot – in fact, they have all spent some time in Ligue 2 recently – yet they all have the chance to push on and claim a European place.
Reims came closest last season with a ferociously organised return to the top flight. With Yunis Abdelhamid at the back – arguably the league’s best defender in 2019 – they have a chance of keeping with the pace. The challenge for the manager, David Guion, is to give his side a cutting edge. Only three teams have scored fewer goals so far this season.
Angers had another good start under Stéphane Moulin – the longest serving (and most underrated) coach in Europe’s top five leagues – and are again overachieving given their budget and stature. But their lack of a reliable goalscorer and struggles to break down more obdurate opponents may again be their undoing. Meanwhile, Strasbourg will be hoping to improve on their poor start to the season and recapture some of the form that helped them win the Coupe de la Ligue last year.
Nantes are well placed to sneak into the top six, with Christian Gourcuff squeezing the best from an eclectic group players. They have experience in the form of in-form centre-back Nicolas Pallois; they have exciting young players in 20-year-old midfielder Imran Louza and cat-like France Under-21 goalkeeper Alban Lafont; and they have surprise performers such as Andrei Girotto, who moved successfully from holding midfield to the centre of defence, and Kader Bamba, the former reserve team winger who has stepped up this season.
Montpellier (ninth), Nice (10th), Bordeaux (13th) and St Étienne (14th) all face pressing questions of their own. St Étienne, who were bottom of the table when they sacked Ghislain Printant in the autumn, enjoyed a new-manager bounce when Claude Puel was appointed but now need to find consistency.
Montpellier will be hoping that Téji Savanier – arguably the best player in Ligue 1 last season – will add the midfield control and creativity they have long lacked now he has fully recovered from injury.
With their ownership situation in flux, Bordeaux are in crisis. Their 6-0 win over Nîmes was delayed by 25 minutes when supporters invaded the pitch in protest after their anti-board banners had been confiscated. They showed some promise when Paulo Sousa was appointed but their challenge has already started to falter and sales are likely this winter. They start the year on the back of three consecutive defeats in the league.
Nice were bought by Ineos, the chemical company founded by the British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, in August and now boast ample resources. They signed Kasper Dolberg, Adam Ounas and Alexis Claude-Maurice in August and welcomed back the wily management duo of the president, Jean-Pierre Rivère, and the transfer guru Julien Fournier. The well-liked pair supervised the astute recruitment policy that pushed the team into the top four under Puel and Lucien Favre. Having engineered a stoic 2018-19 campaign despite the crippling restraints of the previous owners, the coach, Patrick Vieira, very much Rivère’s man, enters 2020 in a strong position. How signings, coach and directors gel will be central to their challenge.
At the bottom, a second mini league is quickly developing, with Toulouse, Nîmes, Amiens, Metz and Dijon battling to stay up. All five of these clubs are without a win in their past five games. Toulouse, who have lost their last eight games, and Nîmes, who have not won since September, are already five points from safety. Neither team has the quality to extricate themselves.
Amiens have been unfortunate with suspensions and injuries, but the return of the goalscorer Moussa Konaté and the creative wideman Saman Ghoddos should ease their fears. Dijon were lucky to escape via the play-offs last season and will likely have to battle with the Ligue 2 champions Metz to prevent relegation again. Brest are five points clear of the relegation zone and should stay up.
Further up the table, there are three central storylines to watch in 2020: PSG’s latest desperate bid for Champions League glory and the fate of usual challengers Monaco (seventh) and Lyon (12th). Monaco ended the year by sacking Leonardo Jardim (again), despite a relatively promising opening half of the campaign. Jardim won three of his final four games in charge and the club’s strike duo have been in excellent form – Wissam Ben Yedder is leading the race for the golden boot with 13 goals and Islam Slimani is top of the assists table – yet the Portuguese manager was replaced by Robert Moreno a few days after Christmas. Moreno’s appointment is a big gamble. He speaks good French, has a solid reputation as a coach and led Spain to Euro 2020 without losing a game, yet this is his first job as a head coach in club football.
Lyon, meanwhile, may have the most uncertain future of any Ligue 1 club. Rudi Garcia was booed before his first game in October by fans who were upset over his recent spell with rivals Marseille and now he has to contend with the loss of the talismanic captain, Memphis Depay, for the rest of the season as well as the uneasy power share between the president, Jean-Michel Aulas, and the sporting director, Juninho. Signings and stability are needed; Garcia might get the first but the second is some way off.
In 2020, the destination of the title may be close to certain, but Moreno’s ability to adapt, the staying power of Villas-Boas, Bordeaux’s ownership, Reims’ source of goals, Toulouse’s top-flight status, as well as the futures of Puel and Garcia, not to mention Champions League, Europa League and relegation spots, are all far from it.
The Guardian Sport