A lacklustre Ligue so far
If the end of the year is all about handing out the gongs, Ligue 1 is odds-on frontrunner for the Eric Djemba-Djemba Award for Outstanding Mediocrity. Just ten points separate fifth-from-bottom and the leaders, which for the Ligue 1 spin doctors spells 'tense excitement' ahead of the second-half of the season.
For the less gullible, it provides statistical proof of a first half to the season that has been underwhelmingly underwhelming. L'Equipe bigged up the last round of matches before the winter break as Le Bouquet Final, which literally means 'the final bouquet.' With none of the top 12 teams in the division winning and just 17 goals in the ten games, however, if you did give that sort of floral tribute to your mother, it could well be your last.
The least below-par of the bunch has proved to be Lille, who fittingly head the table with the lowest points total since the top division's return to 20 clubs in 2002-03. "I don't think the top teams have enough points," Lille boss Rudi Garcia said after seeing his team garner a total only slightly superior to that of the last Moldovan entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. "Lyon are Marseille are still in touch, and it's still them and not us who are favourites for the title. Those two have beaten us this season."
That being true and the 'We're not all that good really' kid psychology aside, Garcia must suspect Lille - fourth last season, just a point off third - are well-armed for a genuine push for a first title since 1954. 'Well-armed' is the appropriate description as they - like last season - head the scoring charts as a collective and also individually in the muscular shape of Moussa Sow, who has developed suprisingly well since his summer move from Rennes. Garcia also has good balance through the side with Ivorian Gervinho providing goals and inspiration, freshly-capped France international Yohan Cabaye orchestrating midfield and the prodigiously promising Eden Hazard supplying pace and directness. Rio Mavuba and Laurent Blanc's 2010 re-make of Marcel Desailly, Adil Rami, stiffen the spine in front of a rejuvenated Mickael Landreau.
Almost as exciting to watch - and even more unexpected - have been Paris Saint-Germain, largely thanks to a talented Brazilian with a ridiculous name, Nene. Moderately decent at Monaco, the ex-Espanyol midfielder has succeeded where so many before him have failed - including a young Ronaldinho - and produced consistently in the capital. Thirteen goals before the winter break have helped push PSG just behind Lille in the table, and with the club managing to offload Mateja Kezman and his €250,000 a month salary as well, Christmas came early to the Parc des Princes.
PSG were beaten 2-0 at Nancy to finish the year, but it was only their second defeat in 23 competitive matches so - for the first time in a long time - there has been no talk of crisis. Until, that is, Stephane Sessegnon and coach Antoine Kombouare sat down for clear-the-air talks recently which did anything but. The effervescent Kombouare called his wanderlust-filled midfielder "a motherf**ker" and "a sh*t of a player" to rather muddy the waters. It remains to be seen whether Sessegnon, who has never been quite as incisive since being linked to Chelsea last year, will return to the fold, despite Kombouare's insistence "no-one will be leaving" with his squad already smaller than your average footballer's IQ.
Champions Marseille are Ligue 1's other club where even a permanent state of flux would be an improvement on the habitual behind-the-scenes and sometimes centre-stage shenanigans. In fifth place at the break, Didier Deschamps' side crawled into their Christmas holidays with a five-game winless streak. Though there was only one defeat in that run, and the fact they have only three points less than at the same stage last season and are just three points off top spot, perspective has - unsurprisingly - been in short supply.
"Last season I said [the critics] would shut their mouths, and it'll be the same this season," Gabriel Heinze ranted recently. "How many games are left? It's got to stop." There is no doubt, however, Marseille are limping with Lucho Gonzalez, their most influential player, hamstrung by having to play a more defensive role due to an injury to one-time West Ham enforcer Edouard Cisse (believe it or not).
The Argentine was unplayability itself in the second-half of the last campaign during a run that swept OM to the title, and Deschamps is desperately looking for another defensive midfielder to allow Lucho more freedom after missing out on Bordeaux's Alou Diarra last summer.
The move could also solve another major problem, that of providing more creativity to help cure Andre-Pierre Gignac's chronic lack of goals since his summer move from Toulouse to the Stade Vélodrome.
The France international has found the net just once in the league this season, not the sort of return the club - and the fans, who have booed him recently - were expecting on €16.5 million of their hard-earned. Add to that the failure of Loic Remy, a €15 million capture from Nice, to settle quickly, and perhaps a large chunk of that €30-odd million should rather have been used in prying Luis Fabiano away from Sevilla to replace Mamadou Niang as had initially been planned.
Like Marseille, Lyon had a lumbering start, but unlike the champions, Claude Puel's men are picking up speed. A haul of 26 points from a possible 36 in an unbeaten 12-game run before the break catapulted them up from 17th to fourth. "Things didn't just click into place," Puel said, befitting his unloved, unspectacular but far from unsuccessful style, which has seen Lyon lose fewer games than any team other than Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid in any of Europe's top five leagues in 2010. "We showed character to pick up points, built our confidence, and with the better situation, the players felt liberated and our displays improved."
One reason the squad were able to 'burn their bras', as it were, is Lisandro Lopez's improved diet that helped him shed the excess kilos piled on by a summer of excess. With the slimline Argentine sharper of late, the lacklustre form of megabucks summer folly Yoann Gourcuff has not been quite as big a story as it would have been. There had been pressure for the plug to be pulled on Puel in September, but club president Jean-Michel Aulas remains ever the pragmatist. "Let's just think about the fact we're fourth, one point off the top. But I hope the second part of the season is not as difficult," he grumbled. "I must have aged 20 years in the last six months."
Rennes sneaked into the top three at the break ahead of Lyon on goal difference, an incredible feat given they scored less than a goal a game in their first 19. That in itself is hardly surprising after a summer in which one striker - Victor Hugo Montano - was brought in to replace four - Jimmy Briand, Asamoah Gyan, Ismael Bangoura and Sow. You do the math.
The club expect to add to their forward line during the winter transfer window, and with their defence again strong, despite the summer departures of Petter Hansson and Carlos Bocanegra, ambition is growing in Brittany. "At the start of the season, we would have signed up straightaway to be where we are now," full-back Romain Danze said, and his side would have been top at Christmas if they had won rather than lost at struggling Caen. "In the end, it's disappointing to be third. If we'd won here, it would have been us who would have reaped the most benefit."
Don't expect the humdrum likes of Saint-Etienne, Jean Tigana's Bordeaux or Montpellier to emerge from the pack, while Auxerre - third last season - have simply found the demands of the Champions League and the league just too much to cope with. With the five at the top better than the rest, but still much-of-a-muchness, the title race looks as though it could be tight. Just don't expect it to raise too many pulses.