In recent years, predicting the team to clinch the Ligue 1 title was a seemingly straightforward affair, and one that required very little guesswork.
With colossal financial assets and a vision to attract the finest players, Paris Saint-Germain have consistently dominated the French top tier for the last two seasons; helping themselves to two league titles and three domestic trophies in the process.
With a little help from their lucrative owners – Qatar Sports Investments – the proficient commanders of Ligue 1 have also become a well-groomed European outfit, currently only two fixtures away from this years UEFA Champions League Final in Berlin.
The ability to recruit stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Luiz has been the crux of PSG’s mastery so far. Gargantuan amounts of wealth doesn’t guarantee filling the trophy cabinet, but it does buy the all the tools required to be in with a fighting chance.
Their successes have, however, gone some way to denting the French first division’s global reputation; placing it far down the pecking order of the most enthralling and entertaining competitions in world football.
Along with Monaco, the Parisian’s have helped Ligue 1 to its undesirable boring status. The uneven financial playing field has lead to many critics brandishing the competition a one-team contest, unworthy of global recognition or further investment.
Not exactly a false assumption; arguably such an injection of wealth only increases the predictability of how the league will play out, and synonymously decreases the anticipation of the title race in comparison to other major leagues.
The last two seasons have seen PSG secure the title with at least a nine-point cushion – with both trophies decided at least two games prior to the traditional final day celebrations. Compare that to the six-horse race that the Championship is annually privy to and there can be little reason to argue the skepticism.
This season, Olympique Lyonnais are attempting to inject life back into the top tier of French football, and finally bridge the gap between the monetary merits that divide the division.
With a less-than impressive bank balance but an almost unrivalled level of professional experience – consisting of euphoric highs and crushing lows – they have recently shaken the leagues critics; reviving both themselves and the title race along the way. Much to the dismay of PSG, they have spent the majority of the season at summit of Ligue 1, only to be trumped from the top-spot at the weekend by shock home-loss to a 10-man OGC Nice.
A first-place finish is still nowhere near a reaching prediction for Lyon this season; history grants them invaluable knowledge of such stardom.
The millennium decade saw them lift their seventh consecutive league title and eighth domestic cup, capping off 2010 with a Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich. Such accomplishments also propelled them into Forbes’ top 20 most valuable football clubs, rivalling the likes of Chelsea FC and Real Madrid.
Whilst Lyon haven’t exactly continued on an uphill trajectory from pastures unheard of, they have experienced the inevitable downfall of dominating the top for so long; an undoing that would eventually inspire a new and novel game-plan.
From 2010, they proceeded financially on a downwards spiral, revealing losses each year as a result of excessive wage structures. The timing could not have been worse, as the 2011 takeover of PSG finalised OL’s demotion into mere fourth place contention.
For a side that could once boast team sheets containing Hugo Lloris, Eric Abidal, Karim Benzema and Micheal Essien, their fall from grace was quite unprecedented, but sadly not unheard of in today’s modern game.
Galvanized by lessons of the past, president Jean-Michel Aulus sought rectification by employing savvy business acumen to cultivate Lyon’s domestic aspirations. The usual conveyor belt of buying and selling players was to be given the backseat to more ruthless and intellectual methods.
The sale of big name stars generated staggering amounts of revenue that was subsequently re-invested into the club. Stadium enhancements priced at €250m, innovative player recruitment and a re-assembled technical coaching team have all contributed to the in-house development at Lyon. The former French giants were in the process of shrewd re-invention.
Now home to a unique and formidable academy, the re-defined and re-modeled youth system was once inspired by the world-renowned set up currently seen at Dutch giants, Ajax. The strategies employed are about as ‘grassroots’ as is possible, shaped on a daringly brave ‘you’ll get your chance’ mentality.
In collaboration with local youth teams their scouts are tasked with recruiting players between the ages of 8 and 12, moulding them progressively into adolescent stars before eventually promoting them through the ranks. The system bears a distinctive parallels to the ones implemented by Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United some 20 years previous; but is yet to have the same resultant success.
The league’s top scorer, 23-year-old Alexandre Lacazette, is just one of 16 players to come through the youth system, and one of 12 local to the Lyon area.
A striker with a license to roam, pace and trickery are merely the complementary starter to supplement the prolific end product of the young French international. A rare combination of technical skill and tactical awareness has helped Lacazette to the stature of top scorer in Ligue 1 so far; at one time he could gloat an an eight goal deficit over the less-formidable goal-getters the league has to offer.
His devastating tally of 23 goals, six more than PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has proved unequivocal to Lyon’s fortunes this season. Their failure to win a single game in the strikers’ injury absence earlier this year represents quite astoundingly his level of importance to the title contenders.
Further down the ranks, Norwegian youth recruit, 18-year-old Ulrik Jenssen is still yet to make his first team debut. His impressive form for the under-19’s has sparked interest from the coaching staff, who promoted the youngster to first team training earlier this year.
Whilst speaking with the BBC World Service, Jenssen alluded to his joy at being part of the new model taking shape at Lyon:
My ambition is to play for the first team, that’s why I came here. Maybe this season I will get a chance.
The same notion is forthrightly sold to many of the young players, who are frequently given their chance to shake the established first team order. Through smart integration from newly appointed manager Hubert Fournier, a certain hunger and desire resonates from the youth prodigies currently based at Lyon. Such an eagerness to prosper is a mere personification of the team’s superb efforts this season.
As the end of the football year approaches, the danger of producing such youthful talent becomes more evident for Lyonnais. Whilst it may be only a matter of time for some youngsters to break into the first team, others who are already blossoming profoundly may be tempted away from France when the imminent offers arrive. Some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Liverpool and Arsenal, are already thought to be interested in leading man, Lacazette, amongst others in the Lyon line-up.
Having secured 58 points from 30 games so far – just three less than their final total of last season – it has already been a resounding effort from Olympique Lyonnais. With eight games remaining and Champions League football all but secured, they are on the brink of something remarkable.
Clinching the Ligue 1 title from the grasp of the giants in Paris would be a triumph to savour, but for now, the satisfaction of breathing life back into French football is an entirely different achievement, worthy of the highest and most notable recognition.