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The fight to beat the drop in Ligue 1 is preposterously tight | Ligue 1


Rarely are the clubs battling relegation as prestigious as the clubs chasing the title. However, the combined 16 league titles won by Ligue 1’s current bottom two, Bordeaux and St Étienne, is only three fewer than the 19 shared by the top two, PSG and Marseille. The situation at the bottom of the table illustrates the evenness in French football, both historically and currently. The bottom four sides, including St Étienne – who have won more titles than any other side in history – all sit on 22 points. That competitiveness means Ligue 1 could lose two of its biggest clubs sooner or later.

St Étienne have not won the league title since 1981 and were a Ligue 2 club as recently as 2004, but their relegation would still be shocking. However, their slide down the table has also been inexorable. They were European regulars under Christophe Galtier until his exit in 2017 and somehow finished fourth under the wizened Jean Louis Gasset in 2019, but they have not invested in their squad over the last few years and their football has become increasingly uninspiring.

While other clubs have evolved by developing young players or their tactics, St Étienne have become Ligue 1’s dinosaurs, keeping faith with ageing stars and dour football. Hit hardest by the league’s financial crisis caused by the pandemic and the collapse of a TV rights deal, St Étienne tried to pivot to a focus on young players under Claude Puel. But, without much quality emerging from their academy and minimal help from senior players, they barely survived last season and won just two of their first 21 games this season.

Enter Pascal Dupraz. With Puel finally sacked, Dupraz, perhaps Europe’s most intense coach, was charged with repeating the miraculous escape he engineered at Toulouse in 2016 – when his impassioned teamtalk before the final day win at Angers went viral. Although it took a while for man-motivator Dupraz to have an impact, St Étienne have won three of their last five games. An active transfer window has helped, energising the team. They are 19th in the table but, given the quality of Wahbi Khazri, Ryad Boudebouz and Eliaquim Mangala, now seem likely to survive.

Troyes, who were promoted from Ligue 2 as champions and now sit 17th in the table, are on the opposite trajectory. They started the season with a promising young coach in Laurent Batlles and their induction into the City Football Group last season helped them secure a host of Manchester City loanees. Under Batlles they were an organised and competitive side who largely stayed out of trouble thanks to a workmanlike but useful squad and Batlles’ versatile 3-6-1 setup.

Unfathomably, however, they sacked Batlles over Christmas and replaced him with Bruno Irles, who is untested in Ligue 1. Irles ripped up Batlles three-man defence, despite his squad being designed for the system. He has won just one of his first seven games and only secured a 1-1 draw with Marseille over the weekend by returning to the three-man defence favoured by Batlles.

Having punched above their weight under Batlles, Troyes look rudderless. With Irles unsure of their gameplan, their lack of quality has been exposed. Mystifyingly, two of their best players this season, midfielder Xavier Chavalerin and wing-back Giulian Biancone, have been marginalised by Irles. If Troyes finish bottom, which looks increasingly likely, they will only have themselves to blame.

Bordeaux’s poor goal difference means they are bottom of the table. They won the league as recently as 2009 and their relegation would be as shocking as St Étienne going down. Finding the net has not been a problem for Bordeaux this season; they have scored more goals than 12 of the clubs above them, including third-place Nice. Their prolific goalscoring, however, has been matched by their defensive woes. They have the worst defensive record in the league by far, having conceded 63 goals in 26 games, and they have not kept a single clean sheet in the league all season.

They finally sacked Vladimir Petković – who was coming off the success of knocking France out of the Euros last year while in charge of Switzerland – earlier this month after a 5-0 loss to Reims and replaced him with David Guion. Ligue 1 has undergone a tactical revolution in the last 18 months, as French football’s physicality has been paired with more pressing and intensity, but Guion represents the old Ligue 1 – pragmatic and conservative. He has used a solid three-man defence and helped the team secure two 1-1 draws in their last two games. Guion still has the firepower to score goals, with strike duo Hwang Ui-jo and Alberth Elis the third most prolific pair in Ligue 1, but can he improve their porous defence? His track record suggests so.

Metz, the other team on 22 points, and Lorient, whose late win over Brest saw them move to 24, will both be nervous about their heavyweight competitors’ renewed quality and impetus. As will Clermont on 28 points – despite three impressive wins in five games over Rennes, Nice and Marseille – and Angers, on 29, who have lost seven of their last nine.

Lorient have wisely kept faith in coach Christophe Pelissier despite just two wins since September, which included a 15-game winless run. He is one of Ligue 1’s shrewdest operators and remains their best hope. After scoring 14 goals last season, Terem Moffi’s lack of form has been their big problem but new signing Ibrahima Koné and young Sambou Soumano, promoted from the B team, have finally added some cutting edge.

Metz, meanwhile, will have to do without their manager Frédéric Antonetti for the next seven games after he was given a ban for a touchline altercation with Lille sporting coordinator Sylvain Armand. The Metz squad is short of quality and they seem likely to go down alongside Troyes.

St Étienne and Bordeaux may yet rescue themselves, but they should be wary of Metz and Lorient putting runs together. The sight of Werder Bremen, Schalke and Hamburg struggling to return to Germany’s top flight will only make Bordeaux and St-Étienne more nervous. With Ligue 1 moving to an 18-team format in 2023, their incompetence cannot last much longer.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results

Show

Monaco 1-2 Reims

Angers 1-2 Lens

Brest 0-1 Lorient

Clermont 1-1 Bordeaux

Metz 0-0 Nantes

Troyes 1-1 Marseille

Lyon 0-1 Lille

Strasbourg 0-0 Nice

PSG 3-1 St Etienne

Montpellier 2-4 Rennes

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Talking points

Rennes are on the march.
Rennes are on the march. Photograph: Stéphane Mahé/Reuters

A thrilling 4-2 win over Montpellier on Friday night put Rennes in sight of second place after Nice and Marseille both drew. A dip in form around the turn of the year, as Bruno Génésio’s side struggled for balance, has been overcome after four wins in six. Few teams across the continent are as enjoyable to watch as Rennes. The swagger of forward Martin Terrier, the skill of teenage winger Kamaldeen Sulemana, the vision and midfield guile of Lovro Majer and Benjamin Bourigeaud’s David Beckham-esque deliveries have combined for several irresistible team goals. Footballing entertainment does not come much better.

VAR provided the weekend’s main controversy. Lille led Lyon 1-0 having resisted heavy Lyon pressure as Lucas Paquetá brilliantly orchestrated proceedings, only for his fellow forwards’ finishing to let him down. Paquetá, however, thought he had snatched a late equaliser having pressured Lille keeper Léo Jardim into an error, pinching possession and slotting into an empty net. With Jardim down after the Brazilian’s challenge, referee Clement Turpin consulted the pitchside monitor. Although Jardim clearly kicked the ground, resulting in a weak pass and allowing Paquetá to score, Turpin oddly gave a foul instead of a goal and Lille held out to win 1-0. A bemused Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s president, has already asked the director of French refereeing for an explanation. Both sides remain in mid-table.

Ligue 1 table





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