The very phrase ‘Ligue 1 title race’ can prompt the raising of suspicious eyebrows. It feels like an oxymoron. Or a joke. Or like you’ve been thrust without warning into a parallel existence where Lille are currently sitting three points ahead of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) with nine games remaining and your head is about to fall off. But Ligue 1, it would seem, has a title race on its hands.
Ligue 1, in recent years, has felt like a kind of symbolic end-point for the plutocratic order football at large is hurtling towards. PSG have won seven of the last eight league titles, the exception coming in 2016/17 when Monaco struck academy product gold with the emergence of Kylian Mbappé. Naturally, PSG responded by spending €160 million on Mbappé himself, kneecapping their rivals.
Whilst the Premier League has its ‘Big Six’, La Liga has its two (and a half) dominant forces and most leagues can offer some kind of competitiveness, Ligue 1 has, well, un.
It’s the footballing equivalent of a world where every single shop on every single street from Texas to Timbuktu is a WalMart. Where the wealth gap expands to the point that Jeff Bezos has acquired all of the money and nobody else has literally any. Where 19 French teams play out a futile mini-league amongst themselves while PSG players sun-bathe, sit outside quaint Parisian Cafes smoking cigarettes and twiddle their thumbs until Champions League night comes around.
And yet, in a bizarre inversion of this universally established order, the Champions League probably feels like the easy bit right now for Mauricio Pochettino’s side. Having returned home from a breezy 4-1 win at the Nou Camp last month – a game they played for large parts on autopilot, it was the job of Niko Kovač’s Monaco to show them that not every game is as easy as a European Away tie against Barcelona.
Monaco won that game 2-0, completing a league double over PSG in a match where they were mostly in charge. For a team with such a youthful core, featuring midfield duo Aurélien Tchouameni (21) and Youssouf Fofana (22), centre back Benoit Badïashile (19) and creative attacker Sofiane Diop (20), all of whom impressed in the win, this is some feat. But they haven’t been the only side to better the reigning champions. PSG have now lost 6 matches in just 28 games – the first time they’ve chalked up so many defeats in 10 seasons.
Naturally, it would be easy to turn to the oddity of current circumstances as a way of explaining the strangeness. PSG’s run to last year’s Champions League Final, pushed back to the 23 August due to Coronavirus, meant they had a compressed pre-season of shorter than three weeks. That they began the season with quickfire 1-0 defeats is perhaps then unsurprising. That, coupled with the destabilising effects of January’s managerial switch, bringing in Pochettino for Thomas Tuchel and just the general weirdness of empty stadiums are all feasible mitigating factors.
More significantly though, their rivals have stepped up. Lyon currently sit in third just behind PSG on goal difference, putting last season’s forgettable campaign behind them. Memphis Depay, often said to lack consistency, has found form when it matters, and his 14 goals have been supplemented nicely by Karl Toko-Ekambi’s 12, with the Cameroon international emerging as a surprising force. Another team disadvantaged by reaching the latter stages of European football last campaign, Rudi Garcia’s experience has helped them through a tough start and into the title race.
It is Lille, however, who lead the way. Aided by Director of Football Luis Campos, the man with the midas touch in negotiating the transfer market, Christopher Galtier has guided his side through tempestuous waters with unerring success. The resignation of ambitious owner Gérard Lopez midway through the season was a culmination of three years of debts (and a temporary transfer ban in 2018), but such off-field matters have been a mere side-show to on-field brilliance.
The business model of replacing profitable sales with shrew Campos acquisitions, such as Jonathan David and Sven Botman, has paid dividends. Despite some criticism over their squad depth, particularly in defensive areas, they boast the joint fewest goals conceded, with the partnership of Botman and captain José Fonte flourishing. In attack, injury to star striker Burak Yilaz has been dealt with excellently – David, Yusuf Yazici and Jonathan Ikoné have all impressed. The longer their form continues, the more they look like favourites.
Sadly for Ligue 1, the excitement of a three team title race is mostly overshadowed by impending financial armageddon. When, last season, a breakdown in communications led to the premature cancellation of the 2019/20 season (which all other major leagues eventually completed), the loss of TV revenue was at least offset against the promise of a near €4 billion euro mega-deal with Barcelona-based media conglomerate MediaPro. Quickly, this too fell apart.
With the league having failed to acquire financial guarantees ahead of time from MediaPro, it soon became clear the deal was no more than a chimera. After two missed payments it was called off, leaving the many French clubs relying on it as a lifeline stranded and betrayed. Broadcaster Canal+ have stepped in with a reduced short-term deal for this season but the future looks unmistakably bleak. What was touted as a financial package to elevate Ligue 1 to new heights has descended into farce.
Of course, one financial supply line in no danger of ceasing is the oil pipe that runs from Qatar into the heart of Paris. With their rivals cash starved, the one team dominance of PSG in France will only heighten.
A season that could’ve been a launch-pad to greater things might instead be one last hurrah. Lille, who are excellent at replacing star talents, like Gabriel Magalhães, Victor Osimhen and Nicolas Pépé in recent years, won’t be able to rely on Campos magic forever, and will have even less chance of holding on to Boubakary Soumaré or Renato Sanches. And Lyon, who were somewhat fortunate to keep Houssam Auour and Memphis Depay last summer when Arsenal and Barcelona were circling may well be forced to sell this time around.
In the long term, of course, money would out anyway. But if the dire financial forecasts being made are true, then money will out in a seriously significant manner. With murmurings of a European Super League afoot throughout the continent, the future could even see PSG try to break off from the league in pursuit of greener pastures.
It’s all an incredible shame. Because for a league standing on the brink of the abyss, the brink of the abyss has been a huge amount of fun.