Last weekend showed the state of affairs in Ligue 1 perfectly: the “big four” of Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Lyon and Marseille, have never have been so dominant.
A Neymar-less PSG hammered Angers 5-0 away; Monaco battered Guingamp 6-0 at home without half of their starters (Radamel Falcao, Thomas Lemar, Jemerson, Djibril Sidibe, Joao Moutinho); Lyon thrashed St Etienne 5-0 in the 115th Rhone derby, recording their biggest away win ever in the fixture; and Marseille, despite “Evragate” and still without Dimitri Payet, cruised past Caen 5-0.
There were 21 goals scored for the four teams at the top of the table, and none conceded, a tally never seen before over the same weekend.
Yet within the top four there is another gap: between PSG and the others. After spending €222 million on bringing in Neymar and loaning Kylian Mbappe from rivals Monaco, the capital club are still unbeaten and have a four point lead over Monaco, with a much better goal difference. The feeling is that, domestically at least, there are no weaknesses in this team, even if the Monaco vs. PSG clash in less than three weeks will be very interesting. Whatever happens at the Stade Louis II, it is hard to see the Parisians and their incredible squad not regaining their title.
PSG look untouchable at the moment, so what’s left? Lyon’s Nabil Fekir admitted in an interview in Le Parisien on Tuesday: “Our objective is the second place.” Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim has said the same thing as well.
Monaco, Lyon and Marseille are in a battle for second — and direct access to the Champions League next season. There are just four points between them, with defending champions Monaco on 28, Lyon on 25 and Marseille on 24.
Just behind, in fifth place, there is also the defensively solid Nantes, led by former Leicester boss Claudio Ranieri, on 23 points. They are very much outsiders, but that may change if they beat PSG in Paris after the international break.
The distraction of European football will play its part. Even without it, Nantes will struggle to compete with the other three, but it could make difference in the race for second.
Monaco are currently struggling in their Champions League group (bottom with just two points) and could miss out on qualification for the knockout round and also the Europa League. That would mean playing only one game per week from January to May.
On the other hand, Marseille and Lyon look likely to qualify for the Europa League round of 32 and, with the final in Lyon in May, Les Gones will want to go far in the competition. Both clubs probably don’t have the depth to do so though, which may lead to dropped points back in Ligue 1.
Arguably, Monaco could be in the best position and, if they have the best squad out of the three — in terms of depth and also experience — they also have the best manager in Leonardo Jardim. However, they are also very dependent on Falcao. The Colombian striker has been in incredible form so far this season with 13 goals in only nine league matches and from just 14 shots on target. If Monaco can keep him fit, then they will have a great chance.
Lyon are dependent on their own star: Fekir. After a shaky start to the season, with draws at home against Bordeaux (3-3) or Dijon (3-3) for example, Lyon are in incredible form with six wins in a row in all competitions. Their Fantastic Four (Fekir, Memphis Depay, Bertrand Traore and Mariano Diaz) have been superb, and midfielder Houssem Aouar is their new wonderkid. But a lot relies on Fekir.
More than his stats (11 goals and three assists in 11 league matches), it is also his leadership on and off the pitch which has been impressive. Manager Bruno Genesio gave him the captain’s armband at the start of the season and he hasn’t disappointed.
Marseille have a leader too, in Florian Thauvin. In the win against Caen, Thauvin scored twice and gave one assist — he has now been involved in 25 goals (15 scored and 10 assists) in the league in 2017, more than any other French player in Europe’s top five leagues. He has finally matured and is more consistent, but will it be enough to keep l’OM in contention?
So far, the encounters on the pitch between the three contenders have brought fantastic entertainment with Monaco humiliating Marseille (6-1) and Lyon landing a last minute 3-2 victory against Monaco (thanks to a Fekir free kick), while Lyon vs. Marseille will happen just before Christmas.
This race for second place could be also decided in the clubs’ matches against PSG. Lyon host them on Jan. 21; Marseille travel to the capital on Feb. 25; Monaco go there on April 15 — by which point, it may all be done.
Even if PSG walk away with the Ligue 1 title this season, the race for second has never been more exciting.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.