By Michael King
Entering the second half of the season, there’s little uncertainty in many domestic leagues throughout Europe. In England, Manchester United has a only two-point lead over its inter-city rival Man City, but the Red Devils have a critical two games in-hand. Without having dropped a match, it’s a big margin for Man U. Meanwhile, La Liga is experiencing its annual two-team struggle between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In Italy, perpetually steady AC Milan maintains a five-point lead over Lazio with little sign of the Rossoneri not keeping a champion’s pace. It’s an even odder year in the Bundesliga, where Borussia Dortmund has a seemingly insurmountable 10-point advantage.
It’s not that way in France. In fact, it’s far from it, where 10 teams are within five points of first-place Lille. For a French league that is often perceived as being a notch below others in Europe, an exciting title race should spark substantial interest.
Though there is no clear front-runner, a number of factors will determine who’s crowned league champion. Other cup competitions, results of the January transfer window and integration of new players will substantially impact the on-field results.
The continued scoring touch of French-born Senegalese striker Moussa Sow will be critical for Lille to build on its lead. Sow’s league-leading 14 goals in 18 matches this season already exceed his career total in Ligue 1. Lille signed Sow at the beginning of the season after his contract expired with fellow title-challenger Rennes. But Belgium starlet Eden Hazard remains the key player for Lille. Though not a prolific goal scorer, Hazard offers a rare combination of speed and attacking verve as a winger.
Teams that have been near the top of the table in recent years, such as Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux, find themselves ranging from fourth to eighth this season. They naturally have the track record of playing well down the stretch, but it remains to be seen how they finish in 2011. Champions in 2008 and 2009 respectively, Bordeaux and Marseille, have lost key players in recent years. Former league top scorer Mamadou Niang left for Fenerbahçe after last year and Bordeaux suffered through the loss of offensive partnership Yoann Gourcuff and Marouane Chamakh.
Despite those critical losses, perhaps the most unpredictable of that group is Lyon. With seven league titles between 2002 and 2008, Lyon obviously has a championship pedigree. But the team is still in the process of integrating former French Player of the Year Gourcuff. He marshals the attacking midfield and is the team’s primary offensive creator. With one goal and four assists this season, his numbers are well off his career-best performance two seasons ago. However, striker Lisandro (8 goals) and Bafetimbi Gomis (6) continue to score. Look for Lyon’s scoring ability to increase as Gourcuff becomes increasingly comfortable with his teammates.
One team that hasn’t factored in the title race in recent years is Paris giant PSG. Perhaps the best transfer this season, the team scooped up the Brazilian Nene for a modest fee. The journeyman’s addition paid obvious dividends with his 13 league goals. Yet given the circumstances surrounding the banning of many home supporters, PSG’s lack of home-field advantage at the hallowed Parc des Princes could be a factor.
Teams such as Rennes, St. Etienne, and Brest, which are not burdened by upcoming Champion’s League ties, can focus their efforts on winning Ligue 1. Both Marseille and Lyon experienced difficult draws in the Champion’s League Round of 16, facing Man U and Madrid, respectively. If Lyon makes another deep run into the tournament (semi-finalist last year), then look for the squad to have trouble keeping its second-place pace in Ligue 1.
Though perhaps not as well-known on the world stage, but certainly just as taxing, Lille and PSG each have upcoming Europa League fixtures in February. Clearly, the success and failure of these four teams in Europe’s top tournaments will affect the outcome of the Ligue 1 race.
Also, the ability of teams to stave off bids for their top players could be significantly influential. An abundance of transfer rumors predict several of the league’s stars moving elsewhere in Europe, including Paris Saint-Germain winger Stephane Sessegnon to Newcastle and Hazard to Arsenal.
No matter what happens during the current January transfer window, the exciting second half for Ligue 1 begins in earnest as the nearly four week winter break ends January 15.
Michael King can be reached at email@example.com.