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French football season review (2011/12)


Fairytales do exist after all. A bit less than a year after Paris Saint-Germain were bought by Qatar Sports Investments, Montpellier and its loveable young and bold side piped them to the title courtesy of one win. And it certainly is deserved.

This column has written about Montpellier before and stated that them being in Europe in 2012/13 is no good news for French football and despite being champions I stand by that. Except it doesn’t really matter if neither Montpellier, PSG or Lille (if they get through their play-off) do get knocked out in the first stage of the Champions’ League as Portugal have leapfrogged us already and we still have some kind of gap between ourselves and Russia (a bit less than 7 points at the end of 11/12). In a nutshell, Montpellier can enjoy every minute of their 540 minutes in the Premier European competition next season. I for one do hope they keep most of their squad together for the time being and see what they can do a year after glory. Of course it’s a bit early to speculate whether the likes of Yanga-Mbiwa, Saïhi, Estrada, Belhanda or Giroud will stay or leave so let’s focus on the present.

Montpellier won the French Youth Cup in 2009 which was the platform from which coach René Girard built from. The signings have been very shrewd indeed. Who would have thought after his dreadful season with Lens last season, that Henri Bédimo would be winning the league 12 months after experiencing relegation? The same can be said of Vitorino Hilton who was probably the most unpopular defender at Marseille in recent seasons (the fact that he didn’t get burglared at Montpellier probably helped). Add to that the quality of Olivier Giroud (who only finished golden boot winner because he scored less penalties than PSG’s Nene) and the team looks pretty solid. That is one decent line-up everyone will agree but what about the bench? Players like Stambouli or Cabella did the work when called upon. True, they don’t have a full second side à la Manchester City but a lot of bit-part players stepped up at some point in the season and ensured that Montpellier got maximum points when it mattered.

PSG will feel hard done by no doubt. All this money spent and no trophy. Maybe some things could have been better managed like Kombouaré’s sacking while he was doing so well (Kombouaré managed more points in the league than Ancelotti: 40 points for the Kanak while Ancelotti only achieved 39). Ancelotti and his Christmas Tree surely took a lot of getting used to and he finally got rid of it when he saw that Ligue 1 was a very defensive league (no change with Serie A so far) but that creativity was the biggest flaw of the land. The signings have had mixed seasons really: Sirigu was a contender for best goalkeeper in the league, Ménez showed that he was PSG’s most important player at times while Alex, Maxwell and Sissoko did the job at pretty much every game. However, Lugano massively failed in his quest which was to partner young Mamadou Sakho and make him an even better player than he was last summer (Sakho isn’t going to Euro 2012, Montpellier’s Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa iss taking his place, you would’ve been a brave man to bet on that a year ago), Gameiro showed his limitations (although had he received better service his season would have been more complete) while Pastore was hit and miss. Terrible to start with but ends the season decently. He’s certainly improved his physical game towards easter and you can see that the best is yet to come. Eventually what was PSG’s downfall is that they didn’t behave like a team. Individualism cost them dearly in the final third with players going for a cheeky dribble and losing the ball when a simple pass would have resulted in a goal.

In third you have Lille who said goodbye to Eden Hazard last night. Player of the year again and not too far in the golden boot pecking order (20 goals, just a goal short behind Giroud and Nene). A strange season it has been for Lille. From a purely mathematic point of view, it has been almost as good as the last one (74 points this season falling just 2 points behind last season’s tally of 76 which won them the league) and they were in the title race till the penultimate day all the while we thought Lyon would pipe them for 3rd place. Proof that Lille maybe started playing for the title a bit too late. Still, two Champions’ League campaigns is commendable and a knock-out stage tie next season isn’t out of the question.

Lyon will not be playing Champions’ League football for the first time since 2000/01. 12 seasons of this side more often than not qualifying for the group stage, managing notably a quarter-final against Milan and a semi-final 2 seasons ago against Bayern. The end of an era? Possible. For quite some time, Lyon have been banking on CL money to keep players on juicy contracts and entice other players. Their other source of revenue was to sell promising players for quite a load of cash (Lyon supremo Jean-Michel Aulas is a very shrewd businessman). The problem is that apart from Lloris, Lyon don’t really have any major assets to sell. Lloris is a good goalkeeper and will want to play top level football season in season out. The time to cash in on the sale is as good as ever for Aulas. One meagre French Cup final win against a non-league outfit won’t be enough.

In 5th, we have the good surprise of the year in Bordeaux. In the relegation zone in November, they are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after the gigantic mess left by Blanc in 2010. It is also good news for French football in Europe as Bordeaux, like Saint-Etienne have fans who enjoy European trips and will give qualification for the knock-out stage a decent go. Rennes showed this season that they prioritised the league while Toulouse fans wouldn’t even turn up if Real Madrid came to town.

The last club to experience Europe next season will be Marseille who’ve had a chaotic season. A terrible start (their first win coming after seven games) followed by two invincibility runs of seven and nine games respectively (Montpellier beating them between the two runs) followed by 2 wins in their last 17 league games. The League Cup win against Lyon ensured European football for a club who finished 10th, their worst finish for over a decade. Still Marseille did reach the Champions’ League quarter-finals (albeit thanks to two flukey wins against German champions Borussia Dortmund and a very poor Inter Milan side) which only Lyon and Bordeaux have managed in the past decade. It is a shame to see this club stop their European progress as they were on a good run (KO stage in 2010/11).

Then we have the lower half of the league which clubs were all concerned by relegation till the final day. The unlucky 3 of the year are Caen, Dijon and Auxerre. Not so much a surprise for the former two but quite a bit for the latter who spent more than 30 consecutive years in the league. Their fans, who are as vocal as Monaco’s on a bad day, made sure we’ll remember them till the end of time by stupidly forcing their game against Montpellier to be stopped twice and minutes away from being abandoned.

In the lower leagues, joy for great club of yore Reims along with Bastia and Troyes. Metz say goodbye to Ligue 2 and hello to non-league accompanied by Boulogne-sur-Mer and Amiens.

Philip Bargiel

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