At the halfway point of the Ligue 1 season in France, defending champions Paris Saint-Germain lead the way at the top of the table.
Laurent Blanc’s side have been in impressive form, having lost just once in their first 19 matches, a surprise recent 2-0 defeat at Evian Thonon Gaillard. They lead AS Monaco by three points going into 2014.
The newly promoted principality outfit have proven surprisingly cohesive despite a summer of heavy transfer dealings, and Claudio Ranieri’s side are giving PSG a closer run for their money than many expected.
Lille OSC are the surprise name also in title contention; they are four points off the top and have been extremely difficult to break down so far. Rene Girard, the coach famed for leading Montpellier Herault SC to the Championnat title two years ago, has constructed one of the strongest defensive units in European football at the Stade Pierre Mauroy.
Olympique de Marseille are well off the pace, and following a torrid European campaign in the UEFA Champions League, Elie Baup has already been shown the Stade Velodrome exit door.
Girondins de Bordeaux and AS Saint-Etienne are in European contention once more, while newly returned FC Nantes are one unexpected name also occupying the upper reaches of the Ligue 1 table.
At the bottom, unsurprisingly, sit AC Ajaccio, FC Sochaux-Montbeliard and Valenciennes. All three sides have already changed coaches but still remain adrift at the bottom, with the gap between the teams at the foot of the standings and those in mid-table widening.
It has been an entertaining season so far, but the battle for the title involving PSG and Monaco, France’s two richest sides, is what grabs the attention immediately.
Here is a half-term report from Le Championnat.
In the preseason, many predicted that PSG would struggle to dominate Ligue 1 because of the return of Monaco to the top flight, backed by their Russian millions.
Those same people also claimed that Laurent Blanc was a desperate appointment from the capital club to replace the Real Madrid-bound Carlo Ancelotti, and that Le President would not be able to cope with the egos in this PSG side.
While suggestions that the capital club would not run away with the title have been proven correct so far, Blanc’s ability to not only control this PSG side but also get them playing aesthetically pleasing football has taken most by surprise.
The French champions’ dominance has only been tempered by that surprise result against Evian in Annecy and Monaco's and Lille’s ability to keep the pace. However, the gap between the top three and the rest of the league is already wide, and Marseille’s absence from the title-challenging group has been a surprise.
Monaco have started to take shape under Ranieri, with the majority of the principality outfit’s major summer signings finding their feet and now performing well on the pitch.
Radamel Falcao has been the most disappointing of Les Monegasques’ big investments, particularly when compared to PSG’s Edinson Cavani, but the Colombian has still scored nine goals this term.
Like PSG in their early days under Qatar Sports Investments, Monaco are still bonding as a unit, and despite regular cohesive displays they do still get caught out on occasions. This has allowed PSG to establish a three-point cushion heading into 2014.
However, Ranieri and his players should be aware of the threat posed by Lille, who despite not being able to boast the same resources as the principality outfit or French champions PSG have maximised their potential.
Les Dogues have shown a unity strong enough to rival anything that the “big two” can obtain with their foreign money and boast a number of Ligue 1’s most unsung talents. Although a title win might be beyond them in the long run, Champions League qualification and the financial boost that it brings would be more than satisfying.
The Chasing Pack
Considering the investment made over the summer, seeing Marseille in this category will come as something of a surprise to many. It shouldn’t; OM’s transfer dealings were flawed.
Despite the fact that they captured a host of imaginative names, the team was in the hands of a coach who works best with limited resources, and they also suffered an incredibly difficult Champions League group stage draw. Elie Baup has now gone, unable to handle the influx of attacking talent that came into the side over the summer.
OM finished bottom of their group in Europe and did not register a single point, while questions are being asked of the club’s hierarchy as to why the current team is so unbalanced. Early-season home defeats to title rivals PSG and Monaco contributed to a rapid slide after what had been a good start to the campaign, and hopes of a title tilt have already faded in Provence.
European qualification might not even be assured for OM, who are now under the leadership of sporting director Jose Anigo until a new coach is named. Competition is fierce for Ligue 1’s remaining European qualification spots.
Bordeaux are fourth, despite a poor start to the season that had them 18th in the table in late September.
Saint-Etienne are well-placed in fifth to once again qualify for at least the UEFA Europa League; Christophe Galtier’s side have overcome some key losses to remain competitive and recover after dropping down to ninth place at one point earlier this season.
But it is FC Nantes in seventh, just two points behind Les Girondins de Bordeaux in fourth, who have been the undoubted surprise package of the season.
Roared on by their devoted fans at the Stade de la Beaujoire and buoyed by the goals of Serbian marksman Filip Djordjevic, Michel Der Zakarian’s side are formidable opponents. Les Canaris are making light work of consolidating their Ligue 1 status after returning to the top flight after a four-year absence earlier this year.
Stade de Reims and FC Lorient are situated just outside the teams in European contention. Hubert Fournier’s men are punching above their weight in eighth, while Christian Gourcuff’s side have overcome a shaky start to the season with their excellent recent form.
Olympique Lyonnais are the surprise name to be stuck in mid-table mediocrity with Remi Garde’s side 10th in the standings after making a forgettable start to the season. OL have had to get used to their marginalised role at the top of Ligue 1 in recent years, but even so, this campaign has been testing for the club and followed hot on the heels of a summer of well-publicised turmoil.
Toulouse, SC Bastia and OGC Nice are three of the other four teams that make up the six-team section in the middle of Le Championnat.
Les Aiglons will be disappointed to be there at the halfway stage after their impressive showing last term, but Claude Puel’s side have struggled to overcome a number of injury problems and sit 15th thanks largely to a recent resurgence in form.
However, few could have predicted that EA Guingamp would occupy 12th spot and sit just six points away from sixth place at this stage. Jocelyn Gourvennec’s newly promoted outfit have exceeded all expectations and are far from the cannon fodder that many predicted they would be at the start of the term.
Despite their impressive showing so far, though, they are only 10 points clear of the relegation zone at present, with the gap between the teams in mid-table and those at the bottom sure to shrink before the end of the season.
Embroiled in the battle against the drop at present are Ajaccio, Sochaux and Valenciennes.
The three basement-dwellers have all changed coach already, with Fabrizio Ravanelli, Eric Hely and Daniel Sanchez paying the respective price for poor starts to the season.
But while Sochaux have named Herve Renard as Hely’s replacement, and Sanchez made way for Ariel Jacobs at Valenciennes, rock-bottom Ajaccio are struggling to attract a new permanent leader and lie eight points adrift of safety.
Montpellier, the side precariously poised just above the drop zone, have also changed coach, with Jean Fernandez replaced by Rolland Courbis, the man who led them to the top flight in the first place.
Evian, PSG’s recent conquerors, are not safe either and are only six points ahead of the bottom three for now, but Pascal Dupraz will be confident that he can steer the Savoyard side safety to ensure a fourth consecutive season in Le Championnat.
Perhaps the biggest surprise at the bottom is that Stade Rennais are involved in the scrap against relegation at present.
The Breton side were able to poach Philippe Montanier from enterprising La Liga outfit Real Sociedad, despite not boasting Champions League football. However, the lure of greater security and finances has proved deceiving, with his side struggling for consistency in 15th place, just seven points above the drop zone.
The second half of the season is shaping up to be an exciting one with plenty to play for at both ends of the table.
Those at the bottom face a difficult task in getting themselves out of their current mire, considering that the league table is lacking its usual tightness between the mid-table sides and the basement-dwellers.
But those at the top are closely knit at present, as just four points separate Bordeaux in fourth from Lorient in ninth.
Occupying the top three positions, PSG, Monaco and Lille will prove difficult for the chasing pack to reel in, but the fight for European qualification in fourth and fifth place promises to be exciting.
The title race itself is also far from over, with all three sides yet to truly pull away.
Will Ibrahimovic, Cavani and PSG’s firepower be enough to see them outgun Monaco?
Or can Girard’s Lille spring the ultimate surprise and emulate Montpellier’s improbable title success from the 2011-2012 season?
There is a long way to go yet before discovering the answer in May!