Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) are 12 points clear at the top of the Ligue 1 standings, having scored 76 goals and conceding just 17 goals after 25 matches. Few would be surprised.
When you have the most expensive footballer in the world in Neymar, a serial goal scorer in Edinson Cavani, and the Golden Boy of 2017 in Kylian Mbappe, coupled with a league that does not have the most competitive edge, it was almost expected that PSG would not be beaten to the title again.
Egos bruised after losing out to AS Monaco last season via a wonderful performance by the Radamel Falcao-led team, but they have cemented their position as the alpha-male in France once again.
But for all of PSG’s attacking qualities (Neymar’s flicks and tricks included) and defensive solidity, they are not the main focus these days.
The race for second is heating up, as Olympique Marseille, Olympique Lyonnais and Monaco find themselves in a three-way “mini-league” for the last automatic Champions League spot. These teams are separated by five points, with Monaco in pole position, unbeaten in six matches, and winning three of their last four.
After the lofty heights of their title-winning endeavours of last season, Monaco have found it difficult to recreate that stunning form as they strive to be the best of the rest behind PSG.
It has not been easy after the departures of key players – Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiemoue Bakayoko, all of whom played significant parts in their stellar campaign last season – so to be able to qualify for the Champions League once again, after a disappointing 2017/2018 campaign in which they were bottom of their group, would count as the main success for their season (although they find themselves in the final of the Coupe de la Ligue against PSG).
Leonardo Jardim bought reasonably well in the summer, with a mixture of exciting prospects like Youri Tielemans, Keita Balde and Terence Kongolo all coming in for reasonable prices, along with experienced heads in Stevan Jovetic and Rachid Ghezzal.
Falcao has been in inspired form, with 17 goals in 20 matches, but now 31, Monaco’s reliance on him may be waning. A new goal-scoring threat upfront will be needed soon, although Balde has given them something to be excited about since the departure of Mbappe.
After seemingly being in the wilderness of non-competitiveness for a number of seasons, Marseille sit in third on 52 points and are having one of their best seasons in recent history.
Their recent form has been impressive – unbeaten in their last seven matches, having won five of them. The players, most of them in their prime, have bought into Rudi Garcia’s tactics, and are now playing at a more competitive level.
Luis Gustavo has brought his experience and quality to the midfield; his understanding of the central defensive midfield position has been an important factor in Marseille’s much more consistent performances this season.
Adil Rami has been a rock in the defense, and continues to put in important match-winning performances for Garcia.
The re-signing of Dimitri Payet was supposed to bring back excitement to the Stade Velodrome after his interesting spell at West Ham United, but the dazzling showings that made him one to watch at Euro 2016 continue to elude him.
There is no doubting his ability on the ball, and instilling him as the captain was supposed to help him regain his top form, but he continues to perform below his best level.
The outstanding performer so far has been Florian Thauvin. The Frenchman, who had a miserable time at Newcastle United, seems to be a player reborn at Marseille with 14 goals and eight assists in 25 matches, making him the club’s top creative force this season.
In hindsight, the move to Newcastle probably came too soon for him (he was only 22), so confidence seems to have been regained after he has found his best form in a league that he is much more comfortable in.
Lyon sit five points behind Monaco. A run of three losses in a row (including a recent loss to Les Rouges et Blancs, in an exciting encounter at the Stade Louis II that saw them fall on the wrong side of a 2-3 result) may have dented their chances of Champions League qualification.
After the departures of Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso, as well as losing the leadership qualities of Maxime Gonalons, Les Gones recruited the young, promising talents of Bertrand Traore and Mariano Diaz, amongst others, to try and improve on the credible fourth-place finish of last season.
Bruno Genesio has placed the captaincy on the shoulders of former Lyon Academy player, Nabil Fekir, who has been a revelation playing from the right wing position or in an advanced role in a three-man midfield, scoring 16 goals in 22 matches (his best goal-scoring season in Ligue 1 so far).
At 24, all that hype and promise from the early stages of his career seems to be justified. He has started to show just how good he is; niggling injuries had hampered his progress somewhat.
Memphis Depay, labelled as a Manchester United reject, has shown glimpses of his talent in a system that allows the Dutchman to express himself, and has seen him scoring unbelievable halfway-line wonder strikes and last-second winners (against PSG), albeit finding himself coming off the bench in recent times.
Arguably the find of the season, Houssem Aouar has been a versatile player for Genesio. At 19, he is one for the future, but has already shown his maturity in being able to play a variety of positions.
Fekir and Aouar are amongst the fine academy graduates that Lyon has produced in the last five or so years. Lucas Tousart, who has been impressive in midfield, and Maxwell Cornet, a strong runner out wide, can be included to that list.
With Marseille and Lyon still involved in the Europa League, Monaco could potentially have one game to play each week until the end of the season, giving them a slight advantage in the race for second. Marseille and Lyon’s improvements this season should not go unnoticed, however, and it has been refreshing to see a much more competitive edge from them.
To have the sort of title challenge that was produced last season was a breath of fresh air for Ligue 1, although it ended up being a two-horse race.
This season, behind the billions at PSG, the focus is on the potential re-emergence of a competitive top four. The onus will be on these teams to continue the trend for seasons to come, and try to give Unai Emery’s men a run for their money.
But first, a Champions League spot is there for the taking.