The 12 Days of Football: Three French Clubs
Happy Christmas and welcome to the third article in It's Round & It's White's 12 Days of Football. Our gift to you, the series looks back at football in 2017 and takes stock of matters as the New Year approaches. Today, we cross the Channel to examine three clubs who represent the chronological specters of the Gallic game.
Ligue 1 has been filled with surprises during the 2017-18 campaign. Entering the winter break, it's clear PSG are on an entirely different level than the other 19 clubs. Partially, that's due to defending champion Monaco's struggles and the second coming of the dynastic Olympique Lyonnais.
The Ghost of French Football Past
Calling Lyon a surprise team might be too much. Les Gones have consistently been among Ligue 1's top clubs, even though they haven't come close to their previous dominance. That may be changing. There is no question the side is greatly improved. Chairman Jean-Michel Aulas, miserly as he may be, appears to be assembling a second domestic powerhouse. He may be giving manager Bruno Genesio a squad that can not only contend this season, but, if the duo can keep their core together, for the foreseeable future.
Lyon sit third in the Ligue 1 with 41 points. Monaco only edges them by a single conceded goal. This season has been a huge success for a club that hasn't tasted much of that since the days of Karim Benzema and Juninho Pernambucano. Currently, they boast one of the best attacking units in France, possibly Europe. Lyon has scored 46 goals in just 19 matches. Nabil Fekir (13 goals, four assists) and Mariano Diaz (13 and three) are leading the way. Manchester United bust Memphis Depay isn't far behind. With eight goals and five assists, the Dutchman is having a great season on his own right.
Lyon is not one-dimensional, however. Rafael, Kenny Tete, and Mouctar Diakhaby stand out in a deep defensive corps. In addition, Tanguy NDombele and Houssem Aouar are a dynamic midfield tandem.
Time is on The Kids' side. Mariano and Fekir are 24, Depay 23, Tete, 22, Diakhaby 21, Tousart and NDombele 20. Aouar is just 19. Goalkeeper Anthony Lopes (27), left-back Fernando Marcal (28) and centre-back Marcelo (30) complete the starting XI. With a starting XI averaging 23.4 years of age, the future is bright in France's second city. Expect Lyon to be fighting for the Ligue 1 title until the final weeks of the season.
The Ghost of French Football Present
PSG were widely expected to run away with Ligue 1 last year. Monaco had other ideas. Even with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe arriving in the summer, there was an uneasiness surrounding the Paris club's prospects in 2017-18. The star-studded squad was already very good. Would the new additions put them over the top? Or would Unai Emery find a way to lose from a position of immense strength as he did in the Champions League in the spring? Neymar and Edinson Cavani butted heads early on. Emery initially seemed unwilling to step in. Finally, he did. With the matter resolved, and barring another major fight back, this time from Lyon or Monaco rather than Barcelona, Les Parisiennes seem to have domestic matters in hand. As well, they appear ready to take the next step in Europe.
PSG are enjoying an impressive season. Les Rouge-et-bleus top the standings with 50 points after 19 matches. Neymar and Mbappe have been better than expected. Both are destroying opposing defences on a weekly basis. The biggest winner, though, is none other than Edinson Cavani. While opponents worry about the dangers on the flank, they're forgetting the man right in front of them. The Uruguayan star has 19 goals, as many as his new escorts combined. If the trio continue to put up two goals per game, opponents aren't going to experience much joy. When you add in the rest of the squad, the French version of Manchester City is keeping pace with the English original. Fifty-eight goals in 19 games is better than three per 90.
Defensively, PSG have been pretty good as well. Unai Emery's squad has conceded the second-fewest goals in the league. Brazilian stalwarts Dani Alves, Marquinhos, and Thiago Silva have limited opposing attackers to 15 goals on the campaign. Alphonse Areola's emergence between the posts has been key as well. The Frenchman represents a substantial upgrade over Kevin Trapp.
The Ghost of French Football Future
If PSG have been stellar this season, then black hole would be a fitting term to describe Monaco's title defence. Losing Mbappe, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Bernardo Silva, and Benjamin Mendy hurt. Fabinho and Thomas Lemar are not on the same level this season. The young footballers Leonardo Jardim found to replace them were never going to be plug-and-play. Les Monagasques have picked up the pace recently, but it's probably too late.
The results are there for everyone to see. Monaco may sit second with 41 points, yet they simply do not look like the same dominating team they were just a few months ago. Radamel Falcao continues to produce on a steady basis. The Colombian has 15 league goals. He's been the one positive. Centre half pairing Kamil Glik and Jemerson have found it much more difficult to cope without the rampant attack that made opponents reluctant to push numbers forward in 2016-17.
The exodus will only continue in the near future. Lemar has been linked with a move to the Premier League. Fabinho has revealed he is leaving the side at the season's end. Jardim's players represent football's future, just not Monaco's.
The club's struggles have been even more evident in Europe. Drawn into a tough Champions League group with RB Leipzig, Besiktas and FC Porto, it finished dead last. The principality side won't even play in the Europa League in the New Year. On the other hand, that could be a black Christmas gift wrapped with a silver ribbon. Monaco will be more rested than PSG. Perhaps Jardim and Falcao can make the Parc des Princes denizens sweat a bit.