Followers of this blog will be aware that, despite the scaremongering of a few who have suggested that money has rendered European football uncompetitive, there are close contests for the league title in every major league across Europe. Without doubt though, the tightest race can be found in France, where any one of six teams is realistically in with a shout of being crowned champions. Three points separates these teams, of which one has been the perennial champion of the last decade (Lyon), one is defending the league crown (Bordeaux), one is trying to restore its former glory (Marseille), two are habitual also-rans (Lille and Auxerre) and one is a team enjoying its first campaign back in the top flight (Montpellier).
Jean Fernandez’s Auxerre are viewed as the outsiders in this battle. Tied on 56 points with Bordeaux and Montpellier, though having played two more games than the former, and having toppled Bordeaux recently at home, one would expect this side to be higher up in many pundits estimations. However, this is a side still recovering from dismantling their golden generation including Philippe Mexes and Djibril Cisse and many people expected them to be mid-table rather than enjoying such a lofty position. The team works hard and has been propelled into contention through the form of experienced midfielder Benoit Pedretti and the highly underrated striker Ireneusz Jelen, who has netted a third of Auxerre’s 30 goals so far.
Much like Auxerre, Lille probably should not be in the race for the title, thus much credit should go to manager Rudi Garcia for keeping this outfit in the mix. Unlike Auxerre, however, Lille adopt an attacking approach which is why they are the league’s top scorers. Their problem, as shown in the Europa League, is that they do not defend with great composure. Nevertheless, with Gervinho and Pierre-Alain Frau on 12 goals each, added to the attacking prowess of exciting youngster Eden Hazard and a wily midfield triumvirate of Yohann Cabaye, Florent Balmont and captain Rio Mavuba, Lille do have match winners in their side and will continue to prove game challengers for the title.
Bordeaux remain in pole position. Two games in hand on their rivals, apart from Marseille, means that Laurent Blanc’s team can establish a buffer between themselves and their rivals. However, this is a side that has performed with distinction in the Champions League (up until Tuesday) but has been rather average in the league. Bordeaux’s defeat to Marseille on Sunday in the Coupe de la Ligue final could prove to be a massive psychological blow to the side, as it is my belief that Marseille may provide the champions the biggest challenge in their title defence. Last year, they gained much acclaim, mainly due to the inspirational form of Yoann Gourcuff, who was at the time on loan from Milan. In the summer, Bordeaux met the agreed price Milan had set as part of the loan deal and the French playmaker signed for good. Gourcuff’s second season has not been anywhere near on the same level as last year. Both manager and captain Alou Diarra have depicted the importance of the playmaker’s form on the rest of the side – at his best, he adds fluidity to the side, allowing them to harness the goalscoring talents of Marouane Chamakh upfront.
I think regardless of who wins the title, the real success story will be Montpellier. This side was expected to contest a real scrap at the opposite end of the table in a bid for survival, especially after incumbent manager Rene Girard was brought in to replace the imprisoned Rolland Courbis. Girard has crafted a team of experience and youth which has seen them ditch the tag of underdogs long ago. In their recent trip to Bordeaux, Montpellier came away with a point, but were bitterly disappointed to leave without all three since they had the champions down to ten men and missed two penalties. Much like Lille, this is a side that does not defend particularly well and thus relies on the goals of Victor Hugo Montano and Souleymane Camara to preserve their lofty position.
Lyon is a side that, on the evidence of Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Bordeaux, are probably better suited to European competition than domestic ties. Why is this? Lyon are still feared by many French sides – and rightly so given their unprecedented success in the last decade. However, this means that Lyon are forced to come and break teams down, which is not what the personnel in the side are best at. In Europe, teams do not fear Lyon as much and will come out and play against them. This plays right into a side bursting with players who are devastating on the counter-attack. Lyon are only two points back from the leaders, but I feel their priority will be the Champions League. Jean-Michel Aulas, club president, gets a lot of criticism, but he runs a very effective business model regarding players and transfers. I anticipate a column dedicated to Lyon and Aulas in the future. Claude Puel is, arguably, better suited to managing sides that do not have to break down the opposition every match. He came second to Lyon in 2005 with a Lille side that was best on the counter-attack and has players such as Lisandro Lopez, Michel Bastos, Miralem Pjanic and Cesar Delgado who are all quick guys who can hurt teams when breaking. I would not rule out Lyon winning the title, but they do not really convince me in the league.
Marseille are the team that, in my opinion, will push Bordeaux all the way, as they also have two games in hand on their rivals. Didier Deschamps has a huge edge over Laurent Blanc after ending Marseille’s trophy drought on Sunday against the champions. The former Monaco and Juventus manager inherited a talented squad from Eric Gerets in the summer, but it was also a side that was frustrating to watch at times. They used to play 4-3-3, with two midfield anchors, typifying their emphasis on defence. Deschamps has come in and inverted the midfield triangle, designating the holding role to Edouard Cisse and allowing Benoit Cheyrou and summer acquisition Lucho Gonzalez to support the front three. Hatem Ben Arfa, a player who is beginning to live up to the hype, and Mathieu Valbuena flank the league’s top scorer Mamadou Niang. Deschamps has also converted defensive midfielder Stephane Mbia into a centre-back, albeit at the player’s reluctance. It seems to have worked, although the overrated Steve Mandanda has the league’s worst record for percentage of shots saved, at only 63.5%.
Looking at the run-ins, I would imagine Lyon will have their eyes on the Champions League and will probably fall away with trips to Bordeaux and Montpellier, as well as hosting Auxerre and Lille. Montpellier have a fairly favourable run-in, but it will be fascinating to see if nerves play a part. Last week’s 4-1 hammering at Lille might be a sign of the wheels falling off Montpellier’s title charge. Lille’s run-in is tricky, with an away tie at Lyon and a home battle with Marseille. Auxerre, I feel, will fall away because of a lack of goals. Jelen’s form has been terrific, but surely they cannot rely on him only. That said, this is a side that has done the double over the champions. Bordeaux’s toughest remaining game, on paper, is at home against Lyon. That said, this is a side that has struggled for form as of late, and with Marseille having a set of fixtures that they could realistically win all six games of April, their trips to Auxerre and Lille might come at a time where they are clear at the top and can afford a slip. It is very difficult to call, but part of me does feel that Bordeaux will not have it easy and that Marseille can win the title for the first time in 18 years and go one better than last year’s second place.
Turning attention to the Champions league quarter-finals briefly:
Manchester United deserved to lose at Bayern Munich. The Germans took control after an early setback – Wayne Rooney struck for the 34th time, profiting from a Martin Demichelis aberration. Franck Ribery capped off an excellent performance with a fortuitous deflected goal from a daft free-kick given away by Gary Neville and the tireless Ivica Olic atoned for previous profligacy in front of goal with a last-gasp winner to give the Bavarians a 2-1 advantage ahead of the return next week. Rooney’s late injury and Arjen Robben’s return all add to the momentum for Bayern, who bossed a very lacklustre, average United side that will really need to snap out of their malaise to keep their season going come the weekend with Chelsea on the horizon and will certainly need to remember how to pass a football between themselves and not to the opposition. Bayern will hope this result has stopped the recent slide that has seen them surrender the lead in the Bundesliga to Schalke.
Talking of slides, Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux lost their second straight game at Lyon 3-1 after losing by the same scoreline to another title rival Marseille in the Coupe de la Ligue final on Sunday. For a team that has defended with such tenacity throughout this tournament, it was odd to witness how insecure the French champions were at the back, though this could be because Bordeaux were missing centre back Marc Planus and captain Alou Diarra. Lisandro Lopez struck early but his goal was cancelled out by Marouane Chamakh. Michel Bastos scored the goal of the night with a marvellous left-foot drive past Cedric Carrasso, before his opposite number Hugo Lloris pulled off a genuine world-class save to deny Chamakh a second. Instead, Lisandro bagged a brace from the spot after a handball infringement. Claude Puel’s charges must be favourites for the second leg, though Lisandro is out through suspension. For Bordeaux, they must hope that this slide does not continue in the league.
Ignorance. That is the word that sums up the media reaction to Barcelona’s draw with Arsenal. I have read that Barcelona are in trouble because both Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol are suspended for the return at the Camp Nou. Are these people forgetting that they have two experienced defenders in the form of Rafa Marquez and Gabi Milito to come in? Barcelona will not be too perturbed, especially with Cesc Fabregas suspended, William Gallas and Andrey Arshavin struggling for fitness and their own midfield maestro Andres Iniesta to return. It was a terrific game and Barcelona showed quite clearly that Arsenal are not on their level when it comes to playing ‘beautiful’ football. That first half hour of football by Barcelona was phenomenal and average finishing prevented Barca from ending the tie there and then. Ignorance again from many people when commenting that Zlatan Ibrahimovic does not do it against big teams. The big Swede has scored crucial goals this season and his brace showed his range of finishing – from the deft, cheeky lob of Almunia to the sheer force that beat the Gunners custodian. Victor Valdes pulled off a world-class save to deny Nicklas Bendtner but made an uncharacteristic error when letting Theo Walcott’s simple effort squirm under him. Fabregas was very clever winning the penalty from Puyol – doing everything he could to earn it in a situation not too dissimilar to what happened with Darren Fletcher last year. I must mention that I was particularly impressed with Sergio Busquets who put in an excellent, combative performance.
My predictions for next week’s games come with a caveat – a lot can happen between now and then in terms of injuries and players returning to fitness.
Bayern’s excellent result, the possibility of Robben’s return, Ribery’s form and Gomez’s fitness, allied with Rooney’s injury and United’s need to push the game makes me believe that Bayern will cause an upset progress, playing predominantly on the counter-attack. I hope I am wrong on that.
I’ll take Lyon to progress to the semi finals after an excellent performance against Bordeaux at the Stade Gerland.
Barcelona should outplay Arsenal on that massive pitch at the Camp Nou. I can see that first half hour being prolonged in Spain and with Iniesta coming back and Ibrahimovic full of confidence, it will be a long night for the Gunners.
Mourinho might be unhappy at Inter, who have thrown away a massive lead in Serie A and have Roma and a shockingly poor Milan side breathing down their necks, but the Champions League is a different competition and I will take them to beat CSKA, especially given the 1-0 win from the home leg thanks to Diego Milito.