PSG’s Corsican nightmare – the champions clump down to fourth
For most of last year’s Ligue 1 campaign, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Paris Saint-Germain were almost invincible.
This season Laurent Blanc’s side remains almost entirely unchanged from last year, with the notable addition of Serge Aurier, often hailed as one of the league’s best prospects last year, and the signing of David Luiz for a fee believed to be around €50million from Chelsea, having been expected to be part of a continuity process which would see Les Parisiens maintain their dominance in French football.
However a string of below par performances from the players Blanc dubbed recently as his ‘pseudo stars’ have made this season a lot more complicated for the men from the capital. The resurgence of Olympique de Marseille, Olympique Lyonnais and now Saint-Étienne, twinned with the belief in opposing dressing rooms that the one-time ‘unthinkable’ (i.e. taking points from PSG) is now possible, have added levels of pressure that the Champions for the moment just don’t seem capable of dealing with.
After the recent shock defeat in Guingamp and an uninspiring draw at home to Montpellier, a four-two away defeat against bottom half of the table side SC Bastia was perhaps the worst start to the second-half of the season PSG in the Qatari investment era could ever have imagined.
On paper Paris Saint-Germain still have by far the strongest squad in French football, with its depth contrasting starkly with Marseille’s player group, and its wage bill dwarfing the rest of Ligue 1. However, as the age-old cliché reminds us, football matches are not won on paper and that has certainly wrung true for PSG this season.
For discipline issues, the highly rated but inconsistent duo of Ézéquiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani were left out of the starting line-up, but few would argue that Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura were not capable enough replacements to support Zlatan Ibrahimović in their controversial absence.
SC Bastia, who under their fairly recently dismissed coach Claude Makélélé won a point at the Stade Armand-Cesari against Marseille on the first Matchday of the season, were keen under their new coach Ghislain Printant to give their visitors a similarly torrid time, setting up in a 5-3-2 formation which would act as the perfect counter against Laurent Blanc’s trusted and near trademark 4-3-3 shape.
Unusually for the away side this season, things couldn’t have started off better in the late Saturday afternoon fixture, with the home side taking advantage of SC Bastia high defensive line to open the scoring after just a mere ten minutes of play.
Yohan Cabaye, whose underwhelming career so far in the capital hasn’t been filled with high points, played a lobbed ball from inside his on half, which caught the Bastiais defence off-guard and allowed Lucas to stroll in and fire home his seventh goal of the season past Alponse Areola, the on-loan PSG goalkeeper.
Things got even better for the away side when on the twenty-first minute mark, Adrien Rabiot (who despite pre-season transfer talk is now very much a PSG played) scored his first goal of the season with a cool finish from around twelve-yards out.
So far so good for Laurent Blanc’s side, with the absences of Salvatore Sirigu and Thiago Motta through injury, Aurier through international duty, as well as Cavani and Lavezzi, not looking to have had much bearing on the game at this stage.
Things however would then go from good to bad for PSG before the end of the first period, as their Corsican hosts would pull two goals back in the final 15 minutes of the half. Ryad Boudebouz scored from the spot on thrity-two minutes, after Gregory Van der Wiel was harshly judged to have handled the ball in his own box.
François-Joseph Modesto then grabbed a late equaliser for the home side nine minutes later, when he made the most of PSG’s lack of defensive assurance to head a Boudebouz corner into the bottom corner of Nicolas Douchez’s goal.
Hopes of a Parisien renaissance in the second-half were dealt a heavy blow as PSG conceded from another corner just minutes before the hour mark. Boudebouz’s out-swinging cross was less than convincingly headed away by Rabiot and it fell kindly for the left-back Julian Palmieri who struck the ball wonderfully on the full-volley past Douchez.
It was at this moment that PSG’s team spirit visibly took a hit, with their star attraction Ibrahimović looking extremely distant on the field of play.
Blanc tried to respond to his side’s apparent lack of panache upfront by taking off Blaise Matuidi and replacing him with the centre-forward Jean-Christophe Bahebeck, but the game was finally put out of sight when the home side doubled their lead in the eighty-ninth minute of play. It was Palmieri who got himself on the scoresheet for a second time, when he latched on to an Abdoulaye Keita cross to stab the ball past Douchez.
Paris Saint-Germain’s inconsistency this season will deeply worry their fans and inevitably cast shadows over the future of their coach. Blanc appears to have lost respect from certain high-profile players within his ranks at probably the worst possible time, with results elsewhere forcing les Parisiens into a deeply unfamiliar fourth position in the Ligue 1 standings.
Things will have to change at Parc des Princes if improvement is to be achieved, especially with tricky away trips to Saint-Étienne, Lyon, Marseille and Monaco all still on the cards for the once upon a time domestically near invincible club from the capital.
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Few words can do justice to describe the type of season Alexandre Lacazette is having. The French international’s two goals on Sunday afternoon in Lyon against Toulouse gave him his nineteenth goal of the season, that’s two more goals than the entire Lille team have scored this season in Ligue 1.
Lyon at the moment are proving right those who at the start of the season were extremely excited about this golden generation of players, mostly from the club’s infamous youth system, coming together as a unit under the guidance of Hubert Fournier.
They are now deserved Ligue 1 leaders, being the first side to knock Marseille off top spot since week six of the campaign.
It was a problem-free three-nil win which gave Lyon the three points which would send them one point clear of Marseille, in front of the Stade de Gerland faithful.
Toulouse hadn’t won a game in Lyon since 1976, and anything other than a victory for the home side would have been an incredible shock given the standard of football that they are currently producing. Lyon dominated the match with around two-thirds of possession.
The deadly duo of Nabil Fekir and the unstoppable Alexandre Lacazette once again combined to lethal effect with the game’s opener. Lacazette was played in by the creative midfielder after just fourteen minutes of play, and the striker made no mistake when firing a shot from inside the area passed Ali Ahamada.
The league’s top scorer then doubled his tally on the twenty-seventh minute mark when the ball broke kindly for him on the edge of the Toulouse box.
The three points were well and truly sealed when Fekir scored at the start of the second half with a shot that Ahamada really should have stopped. The twenty-one year old’s eighth goal of the season hit the keeper, but managed spin backward towards the goal and into the Toulouse net.
Marseille, despite having excited fans throughout the first half of the season with the positive football they have become to be renowned for under their eccentric Chilean coach Marcelo Bielsea, have had a comparatively poor run of form since the new year.
The Provence-based outfit were edged out of the Coupe de France on penalties by lowly Grenoble on, a side in the fourth-tier of French football, and for the second time this season they lost to Rolland Courbis’ Montpellier on Friday night in a clash between two of the south’s Ligue 1 representatives.
The game which came directly at the end of what was a very dark week for the French nation in light of the Paris terrorist attacks began with tributes from both sets of supporters to the fallen victims.
The Stade de la Mosson was a proposed home venue for Les Marseillais in the event of a failure to agree terms on the lease of the Vélodrome between OM and Marseille’s council, but Montpellier’s home patch felt very much like an away ground for Bielsa’s side.
Immediately from the start of the game it was apparent that OM would find it difficult to get into gear, with Montpellier’s 4-4-2 , and in particular the determind Morgane Sanson at its heart, repressing their usually free-flowing 3-3-3-1 system.
After chances for both sides, it was Montpellier who opened the scoring first with just over five minutes to go until half-time, when Kévin Bérigaud made the most of flat-footed Marseille defending to meet a pass from Paul Lasne and send a shot from around twenty-yards out past Steve Mandanda.
In early second-half, a rare slip-up from Sanson should have gifted André-Pierre Gignac an equalizer, but the centre-forward, who has struggled in recent weeks to match his previously glistening goalscoring form, fired the ball well over the bar.
An increasingly frustrated Michy Batshuayi, who was playing behind Gignac, then made way for Marseille’s youth product Billel Omrani. Montpellier then however grabbed what would be the game’s decisive goal, when Anthony Mournier all to easily made his way through the Marseille box to play in Paul Lasne who finished easily with a tap-in from close rang.
Omrani scored what would turn out to be no more than a consolation goal for Bielsa’s side, when he did well to net his first goal in OM colours with an acrobatic volley from a Brice Dja Djédjé cross.
What will worry Marseille’s supporters is the clear fact that their poor away form has been an influential factor in their drop down into second place. OM, though showing stamina to remain league leaders for so long, have only picked up one solitary point in their last five away outings and in addition they have not won an away match since their win over Caen in October.
Their reliance on Bielsa’s system returns rewards at home, but it has appeared to be more stubborn than sensible when their failure to adapt their game in away matches has proved costly.
Saint-Étienne go third with victory over Reims
There was cause for visiting support celebration in the Champagne region as Saint-Étienne’s two-one victory against Reims at the Stade Auguste-Delaune enabled Christophe Galtier’s side to dramatically overtake Paris Saint-Germain in the Ligue 1 standings. Les Stéphanois extended their unbeaten run to eleven games with the result and it’s that level of consistency that has enabled them to reach the top three podium.
The game was by no means a classic, and although they had a convincing penalty claim turned down when Ricky Van Wolfswinkel appeared to be tripped in the box, it took forty-four minutes for the away side to break the deadlock.
Captain Loïc Perrin had no time to reflect on the rumours linking him with a move to Arsenal, as both he and goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier were forced in to action to stop Reims from taking the lead. Yohan Mollo however did take the lead for the men in green when he curled home an excellent free-kick from the edge of the box.
It took just five minutes of the second-half for the away side to double their lead when Romain Hamouma scored an equally superb long-range strike with his left-foot, after cutting in from the right-wing. Ruffier was called into action on several further occasions, but it wasn’t until stoppage time that the home side would eventually score.
As he has done regularly this season, Diego Rigonato Rodrigues once again proved his skill from set-pieces, when his dangerous free-kick was inadvertently headed home by Renaud Cohade, making for a nervy end for the Saint-Étienne support.
However, the men from the green and white side of the Rhône divide held on to win a potentially massive three points.