Predicting How the Top 5 in Ligue Will Look at the End of the Season
Predicting any result in French football is a difficult task. So having to choose how the top five will look come the end of this season is almost an impossibility right now given the topsy-turvy nature of both ends of the Ligue 1 table.
Traditional powerhouses Lyon and Marseille are currently keeping the pace with heavyweight Paris Saint-Germain whilst 2009 champions Bordeaux and the rapidly improving giants of yesteryear Saint-Etienne are also providing competition for the title.
It will take some bold statements and brave guesses to predict who will make up the final top five, but here goes...
With the strongest team in the league on paper and by far France's richest club, it is PSG's title to lose despite the fact that they currently sit in five points behind leaders Lyon after a disappointing run of form.
Although their lack of cohesion has cost them at times in this campaign, Carlo Ancelotti's men have more than enough talent to take the title come season end. Individual talents such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jeremy Menez will eventually gel into a unit, even if it's not quite tight-knit.
Ancelotti is a proven champion and his players will not be allowed to take their eye off the title with no continental commitments to consider until early next year.
The big issue right now with PSG is their defence, who despite having been given a multi-million Euro makeover in the past two years, still continue to leak goals.
There is plenty of depth at centre-back with Silva, Alex and Mamadou Sakho all vying for starting berths. The lack of balance comes rather from the sides where full-backs Maxwell, Christophe Jallet and Gregory van der Wiel often spend too much time in attack.
Once Ancelotti can get to grips with this, PSG will become a more formidable opponent than they already are. Communication, which is the capital club's other big vice, will come with time.
Star Man: Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Predicted finish: First
Money talks, or so they say. One thing is for sure: it has been able to acquire PSG some of football's best talents over the past 24 months.
Lucas Moura will arrive in January, the latest in a line of talented young Brazilians to break through at international level. His addition could be a catalyst for Ancelott's side.
Seven-time champions Lyon have surprised everybody by remaining competitive despite President Jean-Michel Aulas' policy of selling most of the club's over-aged and under-performing high earners.
With the wage bill slashed, youth is being given a chance by Coach Remi Garde and the new-found responsibility is getting the best out of some of the team's more established stars.
Bafetimbi Gomis has 10 goals so far this season whilst Steed Malbranque has been in superb form, working in tandem with young French international Maxime Gonalons.
Like PSG, Lyon's biggest weakness is their defence. There is a lot of inexperience there despite the presence of former Rouge-et-Bleus defender Milan Bisevac and this could cost Aulas in the future if he continues to sell players in order to balance the books.
Aulas' tight-fisted nature also impinges on the team's potential for future success as he regularly sells the best performers to the highest bidder; this eagerness to sell continually rips the heart out of Garde's sides.
Star Man: Bafetimbi Gomis.
Predicted finish: Second
There is no doubt that OL have the quality to mount a title challenge but it will be impossible to sustain if star talents like Gomis and Yoann Gourcuff are sold in January.
Lyon's title hopes will be defined by what happens in the transfer window and Aulas never misses a chance to make a quick buck.
Bordeaux have gone from strength to strength under Francis Gillot since a bad initial run of form after his arrival last season.
The man who worked wonders to lead provincial outfit Sochaux to a European finish in the fifth spot took his time to adapt. But after a few minor adjustments, has Les Girondins in top form.
Unbeaten in 16 games spanning the end of last season and the beginning of this, Bordeaux are once again title contenders for the first time since their surprise win in 2009. Star men Ludovic Obraniak and Mariano who arrived last winter are complimented by talents such as Benoit Tremoulinas, Yoan Gourffran and Jaroslav Plasil.
Their team ethic is something that money can't buy.
They have a lack of strength in depth.
With Europa League progress assured, Bordeaux will be playing an extended campaign on multiple fronts after Christmas, forcing Gillot to rotate his squad if he wants to stand a chance of taking the title.
With little money to invest, the coach can perhaps count on his chairman to bring Arsenal misfit Marouane Chamakh back to the club. However, little extra cash will be made available.
If Gillot can rotate his squad successfully, Les Girondins on a roll as we have already seen, are a formidable opponent.
Star Man: Ludovic Obraniak.
Predicted finish: Third
European commitments and a lack of all-round depth make me think that this Bordeaux side will come close but not close enough. A work in progress, Gillot can perhaps realistically target a Champions League qualifying spot this season before going one better the year after.
A title right now for a team so reliant on winger-cum-striker Gouffran's goals doesn't seem feasible without investment.
This season's surprise package have built steadily upon their progress under Coach Christophe Galtier over the last few seasons.
Now with a solid and talented squad led by Gabonese talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Les Verts have their best chance for their first title since 1981's Michel Platini-inspired effort. More importantly, it's their best chance to overtake Rhone rivals Lyon as the dominant force in the area.
Their lethal attack is fast and hard-hitting with Aubameyang complimented by creative wizards Romain Hamouma and Renaud Cohade. But they also boast defensive solidity through rising star Kurt Zouma and talented goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier.
Inconsistency has cost ASSE at times over the last few seasons and this campaign. Galtier's men would no doubt have been top of the table if they hadn't dropped silly points against the likes of Sochaux, Evian and Nice.
That said, they still find themselves in the reckoning and with Aubameyang looking to better last season's 16-goal haul, their success will depend on his consistency and if he indeed finishes the campaign at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard.
Star Man: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Predicted finish: Fourth
Close but not close enough for ASSE who will narrowly miss out on Champions League football. I think Aubameyang will stay until the end of the season, though, and Galtier's side will finally consolidate their recent progress.
Joey Barton's Marseille side have been in surprisingly good form considering the unmitigated disaster of last season under now France coach Didier Deschamps. His replacement Elie Baup was a shock choice for the post but has proven his credentials as a limited OM side continue to push for the title.
The early season form of Andre-Pierre Gignac was impressive and Mathieu Valbuena's improved form gives Les Phoceens one of the best attacking link-ups in the league, further complimented by the presence of Andre and Jordan Ayew and French international Morgan Amalfitano.
A lack of strength in depth and the decimation of the squad during the African Cup of Nations will undoubtedly cost OM this season. Their starting lineup is impressive but if you scratch beneath the surface, there is little cover in case of an injury crisis or a loss in form, as Loic Remy is proving.
Marseille's team has a high concentration of African talent and although defender Nicolas N'Koulou will not be absent thanks to Cameroon's failure to progress, the loss of the Ayew brothers amongst others would be a big blow.
Predicted finish: Fifth
A loss of form during the AFCON will cost OM this season I feel. The club have been going through a transition in the past 18 months as they embrace no longer being top dogs thanks to PSG's considerable spending power.
Expect that to continue.