LIGUE 1: THE TITLE RACE THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
Ligue 1 is often pigeonholed as a one-team league dominated by PSG, with many people forgetting Monaco’s sensational triumph in 2017 as soon as it happened.
This idea that the capital club ease their way to the title without getting out of first gear is being proven wrong once again in 2020-21, as the Parisians have already lost eight league games and have been under significant pressure all season.
After reaching the Champions League final in August, a disappointing start to the new campaign led to the dismissal of Thomas Tuchel and the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino.
The Argentinian’s return to management hasn’t gone as many would’ve expected, and despite a convincing success over Barcelona in Europe, Pochettino finds himself up against it domestically.
PSG’s billionaire owners take it as a given that they should win the league, and although the 91-point season for Monaco four years ago showed there’s plenty of opportunity for other clubs, anything but the title would be seen as a very poor start for the new manager.
The defending champions have been very susceptible to defeats to title rivals, and having already lost to Monaco and Lyon this season, Lille were added to the list on Saturday.
Christophe Galtier’s side have been steadily improving after narrowly avoiding relegation in 2017-18, and the summer additions of the likes of Sven Botman and Jonathan David have turned them into bonafide contenders.
As it stands, Lille are arguably favourites to lift a first league title since that Eden Hazard-inspired team of 2010-11 did the double.
It always appeared something close to that after they went 13 games unbeaten at the start of the season and eased through their Europa League group, but only recently have they looked like they could genuinely finish on top.
The difficult draw and resultant exit to Ajax in the Europa League could prove to be a blessing in disguise, with Les Dogues unbeaten in 12 of their last 13 in the league.
The aforementioned David has started to find form after being so impressive at Gent, and added to the explosive Turkish duo of Yusuf Yazıcı and Burak Yılmaz, Lille have recovered excellently from the departure of Victor Osimhen.
Yılmaz has surprised many after spending his whole European career in Turkey, while Yazıcı was sensational in the Europa League group stage, scoring two hat-tricks.
That’s not to forget longer-serving players Jonathan Bamba and Jonathan Ikoné, and it was that attacking depth that earned them those three huge points at the Parc des Princes on Saturday.
Yazıcı was unavailable because of a second positive covid-19 test in a matter of months, but the rest of the team stepped up and defended David’s first-half opener admirably.
Botman has been one of the best defenders in France this season, and alongside José Fonte, Lille have conceded a measly 19 league goals.
Their impressive squad is down to the fantastic recruitment by former Sporting Director Luís Campos, but as demonstrated by the likes of Osimhen and Nicolas Pépé, Lille are still predominantly a selling club.
This could be even clearer in the coming windows, as the fallout from the Mediapro TV deal crisis means Ligue 1 clubs may have to sell their best players to break even.
For Lille, that may mean this season will be their best chance for a little while to win a fourth league title.
Although PSG are the main threat, Monaco are also a side transformed after recent struggles at the bottom of the division.
Niko Kovač has them scoring goals for fun. They’ve already had 5-2 and 4-3 wins in 2021, and after their solitary loss this calendar year came at Strasbourg, Les Monégasques have responded in style with back-to-back 4-0 victories to sit third, just three points off the pace with seven to play.
Wissam Ben Yedder and Kevin Volland have been consistently excellent, and with the form they’re on, the former Champions League runners-up could yet make a late charge to the top having been down in 8th as recently as December.
That leaves Lyon, who looked the favourites at one point in a rare season without any form of European football for OL.
They’ve only won one of their last five, and you just feel that too many times this season they have dropped points against sides they should beat. That may be what costs them in six weeks’ time.
However, they do play Lille and Monaco in consecutive weekends soon, so if Rudi Garcia can iron out any poor performances from his team by that time and get them firing on all cylinders, it could still be a first title since 2008 for Lyon.
Despite all that, PSG obviously have the world-class quality to ease back to the summit, but are the only one of the four still in Europe.
They do also hold the advantage of having already played all their title rivals home and away, the games which have proved the most testing for Pochettino’s men by a distance.
Whoever comes out on top on the 23rd of May, it’s just refreshing to see a big European title race with four realistic contenders, all of whom will fancy their chances.