Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Promoted proletariat influencing Ligue 1
It is merely a sign of the times, the little man rising up against those who have oppressed him for years. The minnows of Ligue 1 have been in keeping with the zeitgeist in recent weeks, and though they have not quite set up camp in the upper reaches of the table like some sort of footballing 'Occupy' movement, they have certainly made it clear they will have a say in deciding the finishing positions of the established order come the season's end.
The most impressive supposed bottom-feeders in recent weeks have been Evian, who have shown some bottle in overcoming the shame of wearing European football's most hideous shirts to make a decent stab of a first-ever top-flight campaign. Though they have improved by only a place on their position at the halfway stage, and are only a point better off in terms of their gap back to the relegation zone, a run of four wins in their last five games, including a 2-0 defeat of Champions League quarter-finalists Marseille and an identical win at St Etienne, has raised hopes that their top-flight status will be maintained.
A useful quartet of Danes, including ex-Juventus and Liverpool man Christian Poulsen and promising Under-21 international Daniel Wass, has underpinned the team while seasoned captain Olivier Sorlin has brought the Ligue 1 nous that is indispensable to any newly-promoted club. Add to that the occasional brilliant cameos of Jerome Leroy, a 37-year-old midfielder who produced two goals - one sublime - in the win over l'OM that led pundit Jean-Michel Larque to draw not entirely ridiculous comparisons with Zinedine Zidane, and the remarkable late blooming of 36-year-old Cedric Barbosa, who has seven goals and six assists this season, and last season's Ligue 2 champions look well set for a second bite of the top-flight cherry. With games against Lille, Lyon and Montpellier to come, they could also have a major influence on the race to finish in the top three.
What is perhaps most impressive about Evian's relative success is that, like Swansea City upon promotion to the Premier League, they have based their survival gambit on the philosophy that brought them a shot at the big-time. Eschewing what must be an overwhelming temptation to 'park the bus', especially given that the overriding coaching mantra of the last decade has been based on the ultra-defensive fundamentals that won France the 1998 World Cup, last season's top scorers in Ligue 2 have seen only four teams - Montpellier, PSG, Lille and Lyon - score more goals than them in the current Ligue 1 campaign.
A similar philosophy has been adopted by Dijon under Patrice Carteron, whose playing career as an unremarkable defender led to him taking in the delights of Lyon, St Etienne and Sunderland. In his short loan spell on Wearside, he endeared himself to fans with a goal that earned a derby draw with Newcastle, and the fact the 41-year-old Breton's work in the dugout appears to cut the mustard is earning him similar cult status in Dijon. "We don't shut up shop - we try to go forward until the very last minute, and despite that, we're in the relegation zone," Carteron complained a couple of weeks ago after his pro-active tactics cost his team a point against PSG - but they have since lifted themselves out of the bottom three with last weekend's win over Marseille to take their tally to four points from a formidable run of three matches that also featured a meeting with Montpellier.
That haul from what looked like a trio of very loseable games suggests Dijon also have what it takes to save themselves. They have certainly had to work hard to earn that chance given the club has the second-smallest budget in Ligue 1 at €20 million, more than seven times smaller than that of PSG and Lyon. Such financial constraints have forced them to sustain themselves from lower down the footballing food chain, but they have unearthed some tender morsels such as goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet, and midfield trio Eric Bautheac, Thomas Guerbert and Benjamin Corgnet, who has recently been linked with a move to Newcastle, while also providing the on-loan Gael Kakuta with the environment he needs to finally show the talent that convinced Chelsea to sign him.
Intriguingly, it seems that finely-honed sense for fledgling talent has put more distinguished but less refined noses out of joint. "I think our way of doing things upsets people," Carteron said, speaking as someone who has complained to police after receiving threatening phone calls, and been forced to rubbish recent whispers of rifts within the squad. "We go and get players from lower divisions who now have real value on the transfer market." If the porous defence, which features former Bolton and West Bromwich Albion man Abdoulaye Meite, can be shored up and the side maintain their recent form, their upcoming run of four matches against Caen, Bordeaux, Nancy and Sochaux would likely put their future in a positive light.
As good as Dijon and Evian have been of late, they have both been upstaged in terms of points won since Christmas by the side sandwiched in between them last season in Ligue 2, Ajaccio. The Corsicans, proud owners of the French top-flight's smallest budget, would be sixth, just ahead of champions Lille, if the league had started on New Year's Day - though the fixture list has been kind to Olivier Pantaloni's side since the turn of the year. While there have been wins over struggling Auxerre, Dijon and mediocre Valenciennes, the only real surprise - on paper at least - was their 1-0 win over Marseille. They have conceded seven goals and scored one in two defeats to Montpellier and PSG, which is more of an indication of the true nature of things.
While Evian are on firmer ground, both Ajaccio and Dijon - for all their recent improvements and headline-grabbing feats - are two of nine teams within four points of each other between second-from-bottom and 11th. With the situation so tight, and the season's end creeping ever nearer, a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee reaction is to be expected from those looking nervously over their shoulders.
Inversely, while the pressure at the bottom appears to have sparked a major improvement, the tension at the opposite end of the table has led to the bigger names seizing up. PSG have been largely unimpressive since Carlo Ancelotti took charge, often winning - or drawing, like at Caen last weekend - thanks to a moment of individual brilliance. Wins over Marseille in 2012 can almost be written off given how badly Didier Deschamps' men have played of late, losing five successive league games for the first time in 33 years, while Lyon and Lille have consistently struggled for consistency.
Those challenging for the title or a place in the top three are doing a passable impression of cyclists in contention for the Tour de France's yellow jersey. While the lead riders watch each other, an unknown darts out from the peloton to nick a stage win now and then without affecting the overall status quo too much. Recent 'surprises' do not mark a major sea change in French football - just look at the table to see where those who have pulled off good individual results are. The only 'minnow' to have barged uninvited into 'the Elite' with the intention and capacity of remaining there is Montpellier, a team with the 14th-biggest budget in the division, and only slightly less of an upstart title challenger than Dereck Chisora. By closing the two-point gap to PSG and taking the title, Rene Girard's side would deliver a real slap in the face to the ancien regime on behalf of France's footballing under-class.