It was hinted at as early as September, when Marseille beat PSG, and became more likely when the champions lost at home to Lyon and then drew with Lille at the Stade Pierre Mauroy. But, when Burak Yilmaz scored in the 86th minute to give Lille a 3-2 win at Montpellier and take them alongside Lyon at the top of the table before the winter break, it was confirmed: Ligue 1 well and truly has a title race this season.
And not in the Marcelo Bielsa-is-in-charge-so-this-won’t-last-sense, or in the manner of Lyon’s youthful squad overachieving before an ill-timed to injury to Alexandre Lacazette that same season, or even in Monaco’s having caught lightning in a bottle four years ago. Those races were largely fought between the unstoppable force of PSG and one opponent, with the capital side usually emerging victorious.
No team looks like making a decisive break away from the title-chasing pack this season. With three (or maybe four or even five) candidates looking to assert themselves, and with all of them having their own flaws, the run-in in France will be one to watch, which seems to be a theme across Europe in a season turned on its head by the current health crisis.
Lyon might be in the best form of all the challengers – only Milan can better their current run of 14 matches unbeaten. There is something to be said for watching this team improve as the season goes on, but could key players, most notably Memphis Depay, be unsettled by a potential move in January? It would seem laughable that the Dutchman would want to leave for a tilt at the Champions League with Barcelona. Given that Lyon have not played in Europe this season, he is not cup-tied, so may be a target.
In some matches, a moment of individual brilliance from Depay can be the difference. Witness his brilliant flick to Houssem Aouar for the opening goal against Nantes. But his form is uneven – he missed a hatful of presentable chances as Lyon beat Nantes 3-0 on Wednesday night – and the continued improvement of players around him make his potential departure scarcely a concern. Aouar, too, was linked with moves to Arsenal and Juventus in the summer, but after recovering from Covid-19 and lingering thigh issues, he is playing his best football of the year. With Karl Toko Ekambi and Tino Kadewere banging in the goals, and a lack of European football to congest their fixture list, Lyon might just be favourites.
Might being the operative word. Lille have lost just once this season and have played large chunks of the campaign without Renato Sanches, who was perhaps their best player last season. The team’s solidity in defence and midfield allows manager Christophe Galtier to go from strength to strength in attack. Yilmaz, Timothy Weah and Yusuf Yazici are making good on their promise after lengthy injury lay-offs, while Jonathan Bamba has been the finest wide player in Ligue 1 this season.
There were concerns about how Lille would handle playing in Europe, but Galtier’s canny and imaginative rotation helped his team progress to the last 32 of the Europa League in relative comfort, while hardly missing a beat domestically. Even if the Coupe de France does resume in 2021, Lille will enjoy a less crowded calendar. With their battling character, they make a compelling case for themselves.
The elephant in the room, of course, is PSG. It’s easy to belabour their points total given the resources at their disposal, but they barely had a pre-season after the Champions League final and they have been affected by a rash of injuries and Covid-19 cases as well as a somewhat bungled transfer window. Even though PSG have stumbled against their rivals at the top of the table (taking only one point from matches against Lyon, Lille, and Marseille), their relentlessness against the rest of the league was on full display against Strasbourg on Wednesday, with Rafinha and Ángel Di María running the show in a 4-0 win. They are free from European distractions for their next half-dozen matches, all of which seem winnable, before their trip to Marseille in early February. Although the shock sacking of Thomas Tuchel and likely appointment of Mauricio Pochettino in his place may add short-term instability.
Rennes, who have won four games in a row to climb to fourth in the table, and Marseille, who have 28 points and have two eminently winnable matches against Lens and Nice in hand, will also hope to challenge. However, neither side looks likely to sustain the strong starts they have made this season. Marseille lack the cohesion required and Rennes do not have the individual talents. There is time to change this but, for the moment, Ligue 1’s top three look set to offer a plenty compelling race for the Hexagoal over the next few months.
Ligue 1 results
Bordeaux 1-3 Reims
Nice 2-2 Lorient
Nîmes 1-3 Dijon
Lens 2-1 Brest
Rennes 1-0 Metz
Angers 2-1 Marseille
Lyon 3-0 Nantes
Monaco 2-2 St Etienne
Montpellier 2-3 Lille
PSG 4-0 Strasbourg
• Nantes were on the wrong end of a hiding against Lyon that was far more severe than the 3-0 scoreline would suggest. Without Alban Lafont’s heroics in goal for Nantes and the aforementioned woeful finishing on the part of Depay, Lyon could easily have put six past their hapless opponents, who have looked no better since the dismissal of Christian Gourcuff. The club’s much-maligned owner Waldemar Kita, who has appointed no fewer than 14 managers in the last 13 years, looks set to bring in Raymond Domenech, last seen dealing with France’s infamous mutiny at the 2010 World Cup. While Gourcuff was lambasted for being out of touch, or at least having old ideas, at least the veteran has largely kept in touch with club football. Domenech, despite having admittedly had success with France prior to South Africa, has not been in charge of a club since leaving Lyon in 1993.
• One can only hope, for Domenech and Nantes fans, that the club gets the sort of new-manager bounce that Dijon have enjoyed under David Linarés. They did not win any of their first 11 matches this season so it was a big job for the former midfielder but their 3-1 win against fellow strugglers Nîmes has taken them just two points away from safety. Picking up nine points from eight matches is unlikely to win the former Lyon player any nominations for coach of the year, but at the very least, he has added a dash of much-needed hope, something that would be a welcome tonic in Nantes.