Will Carlo Ancelotti's side make good on their promise and deliver the title?
With Ligue 1 going into its winter break finely poised with Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Marseille all tied at the summit with 38 points, the coming five months will be crucial to the trio’s chances of taking the title. Given PSG’s affluence, the capital side have an obvious advantage, but le Championnat is renowned as a league that tests every club’s strength in depth. It is that strength, or a lack of it, that will eventually win out.
Factor in the African Cup of nations that traditionally deprives French teams of a wealth of talent and the race for the title will be a survival of the fittest. Questions have already been asked of the big three’s depth outside of their starting XI’s. The fact that Lyon and Marseille have even been able to keep up with PSG so far is impressive; both sides will need to strengthen in January though if they are to maintain their momentum.
Looking at each side’s defence, midfield and attack going into the business half of the season, it is clear who has the advantage. On paper, at least…
PSG captain Thiago Silva with coach Ancelotti
Marshaled by Brazilian international captain Thiago Silva, PSG boast the league’s meanest backline having conceded just 12 goals. Despite some shaky displays, since Carlo Ancelotti handed the 28-year old the captain’s armband the defence has looked far more assured. Four clean sheets from their last four league games of 2012 bode well and it looks like the Italian has finally solved the capital club’s defensive dilemma.
The one remaining issue for Ancelotti is whether he opts for Alex or Mamadou Sakho to partner Silva long-term. Silva says he prefers to play alongside Alex, but Sakho is the future of the PSG backline and commands a starting berth now. Whilst not technically refined, the Frenchman is more of an all-rounder than Alex and crucially, is more mobile.
Full-backs also remain a concern, but the late 2012 form of Christophe Jallet has enabled Ancelotti to forget about Gregory van der Wiel who has been a disappointing addition at right-back. Maxwell has been as steady as ever and continues to provide balance to a defensive unit that has struggled to convince at times.
Serbian defender Milan Bisevac, vital to Remi Garde's Lyon
Lyon’s new-look back line whilst not as solid as PSG’s has coped admirably despite the lack of a real leader like former stalwart Cris. The Brazilian left the club in the summer and in came former PSG stopper Milan Bisevac to compliment the young talent of Bakary Kone, Dejan Lovren and Samuel Umtiti. Seventeen conceded so far is not a bad return, though there are sides lower down the league faring better at keeping them out.
Anthony Reveillere despite almost joining PSG in the summer, has been a revelation at right-back and his experience along with that of Bisevac is vital to Remi Garde’s team chemistry. The weakness for OL though arguably comes with the inexperience of the likes of Mouhamadou Dabo and Umtiti in particular. Kone has developed rapidly since arriving at the club a year ago and Lovren has been an established first team member for the past few seasons, even if his performances don’t suggest so.
The key for Garde’s men in winning the title won’t lie in the defence, though. PSG have far too much for their rivals in that department.
Nicolas Nkoulou, Marseille's Indomitable Lion
Marseille of the trio have fared the worst, shipping 20 goals already so far. The back line of Nicolas Nkoulou, Jeremy Morel, Rod Fanni and Souleymane Diawara, Lucas Mendes or Kassim Abdallah has looked far from settled at times. Elie Baup often has to play players out of position to fill the gaps at the back and that is only in the event of one or two absentees.
It could have been much worse for Baup, but Cameroon’s failure to qualify for the African Cup of Nations means that they will not be without their ever-present star man Nkoulou who provides the majority of the stability in the OM defence. Diawara’s presence is formidable, but despite the Senegalese no longer being selected by his national team, he has only made five appearances this season.
There is not enough depth in the Velodrome outfit’s back four even at full strength. Baup’s men won’t be basing any title success on their strength at the back.
Thiago Motta, the often-missing piece in PSG's midfield jigsaw?
Any team with the ability to boast the likes of Jeremy Menez, Blaise Matuidi, Javier Pastore, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti should be dominating teams in midfield. That is not how it has worked out for Ancelotti’s men though. Pastore has looked a shadow of himself this season, Motta has struggled with injuries and a promising start to the season for Verratti has declined resulting in him dropping to the bench.
Menez and Matuidi have been two of PSG’s brightest lights. However, Menez has been deployed in a supporting striker role, something which will likely change with the arrival of Lucas Moura, and Matuidi has been left to marshal the midfield on his own at times. Ancelotti’s other stars need to step in and share the burden now that the Italian has dispensed with his preferred three-man midfield approach.
Motta seems to be preferred alongside Matuidi, but has only just regained full fitness. When he plays, he is very important.
Yoann Gourcuff-Lyon's forgotten man
Unable to boast the same financial might as PSG, Lyon went a more economic route to ensure that their midfield remained competitive and their combination of youth and shrewd investments has paid dividends so far. The arrival of Steed Malbranque in the summer has been one of the revelations of the season. Two goals and six assists in 16 appearances is a better return than many expected from a player who had not played regular football in over a year.
Aided by the ever-improving Maxime Gonalons, a reinvigorated Michel Bastos and youngsters such as Gueida Fofana and Clement Grenier, Malbranque’s form will be key to Lyon’s second half of the season. Yoann Gourcuff continues to be a peripheral figure despite having made eight appearances this year.
Mathieu Valbuena has been at the heart of Marseille's title challenge
Given Marseille’s lack of a prolific goal scorer, the midfield has been required to chip in more often than not with vital goals. Andre Ayew, Mathieu Valbuena, Joey Barton, Morgan Amalfitano, Benoit Cheyrou and Charles Kabore have all made important contributions for the side going forward and it is clear that their creativity and danger lies in midfield.
Valbuena in particular has had an outstanding start to the season, and coupled with Andre-Pierre Gignac’s improved form, has helped keep OM in the title race. Ayew’s goals have been vital, bagging five and providing one, but he will depart for Africa in January to represent Ghana. His absence will be a tough one to compensate for Baup.
Ibrahimovic-The name that PSG's Ligue 1 rivals fear
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s incredible tally of 18 goals and three assists in 16 games has provided half of PSG’s entire league haul so far this campaign. Aided by additional strikes from Ezequiel Lavezzi, Kevin Gameiro, Jeremy Menez and Guillaume Hoarau, it is no surprise that Ancelotti’s side are the highest scoring team in Ligue 1.
With Ibrahimovic chasing a domestic record so soon into his time in France, the long-awaited arrival of Lucas Moura adds even more firepower to an already star studded attack. So far Ibra has shown no signs of struggle under the massive expectation that surrounds the team. If he continues to find the net in this form, no team in the league will be able to cope with it. Ancelotti’s only worry will be if the Swede goes missing again through suspension or worse, injury.
Gomis has been reborn in Ligue 1 this season
Lyon’s unexpected title challenge this season is perhaps best attributed to the return t form of Bafetimbi Gomis. Top scorer for les Gones with 11 goals so far this season, the Frenchman has at times offset the lack of regular contribution from star man Lisandro Lopez. Alexandre Lacazette doesn’t look ready to handle the burden of being a top-choice striker just yet and Jimmy Briand has never been consistent enough in his return.
The worry for coach Remi Garde, aside from the Argentine’s indifferent form, is the fact that club owner Jean-Michel Aulas has a history of cashing in on in-form players. With a move to Liverpool and Chelsea having been mooted for Gomis, the departure of their star striker at this moment would send their season into decline.
A sleeker, more mobile Gignac has been vital for OM so far
Like both PSG and Lyon, Marseille also rely on one man for the bulk of their goals. Andre-Pierre Gignac has netted six goals in 12 appearances so far this season and leads Andre Ayew by a goal at the top of the club’s scoring charts. Aside from the Frenchman, Ayew’s brother Jordan has chipped in with four, but it is the demise of French international Loic Remy that has been the biggest blow for Baup’s men.
Without Gignac, there is a real lack of depth in the squad because of Remy’s disappearance. Through injury, poor form and a bad attitude, Remy’s star has been in massive decline since the start of the year when he was close to joining Tottenham under then coach Harry Redknapp. If Gignac gets injured again, there is no guaranteed replacement without doing some shopping, or selling, in January.
One small bonus for Baup however is that Jordan Ayew was omitted from Ghana’s squad for the African Cup of Nations meaning he is available in the league and cup. Florian Raspentino who arrived in the summer from Nantes is yet to make an impact.