It’s taken a long time but Paris Saint-Germain, strong favorite to retain the Ligue 1 title going into this season, has finally settled atop the league standings. Part of the reigning champion’s inability to top the table this season has stemmed from its own underperforming. A creeping sense of jadedness has underpinned much of what we’ve seen from the Parisians this term. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was also out injured for a key stretch of the season, with Edinson Cavani all-too-often failing to fire in his absence. Far too many matches PSG should’ve won have ended in draws. Apart from the dramatic way in which they knocked Chelsea out of the Champions League, there’s been precious little about PSG to get excited over this season.
But the flipside of that is that the other teams competing with them at the top of the table have all been better than expected.
Olympique de Marseille took the league by storm earlier in the season as incoming manager Marcelo Bielsa infused OM with an attacking verve that made them both entertaining and unstoppable at times. Led by the goals of striker Andre-Pierre Gignac, Marseille hit the ground running while the rest of the league struggled to find its feet. And when OM’s hot streak finally cooled, it wasn’t PSG waiting to seize the initiative as expected. Instead it was Olympique Lyon who rose to top the league in the New Year, thanks in large part to the goals of in-form striker Alexander Lacazette.
The resurgence of these two traditional French football powers has put PSG on the back foot for much of the season. Also neither team has had Champions League football to contend with, and both have had strikers who hit hot streaks while Ibra was sidelined and Cavani struggled.
Meanwhile Monaco, a team stripped of its major assets from last season, has been surprisingly successful fielding a team of youthful players augmented by a few savvy veterans. Even without the likes of Radamel Falcao, James Rodrigues and Emmanuel Riviere, all of whom left last summer, Monaco has persevered. The principality outfit currently sits fourth in the league and is into the last eight of the Champions League.
But while it’s been fun to see these relative underdogs exceed expectations, quality (or in this case perhaps money) eventually rises to the top. Over the past few weeks, the return to fitness of Zlatan Ibrahimovic has coincided with PSG making a run up the ranks. In March, Zlatan netted six goals and made one assist and despite taking a total of just seven out of 12 available points last month, PSG now tops the table and will be difficult to knock off its perch this late in the season.
With his injury layoff having given a head start to the likes of Lacazette and Gignac, Ibrahimovic has also been steadily climbing the goal-scoring charts. While Lacazette still leads on 23 goals, Ibra’s 17 have lifted him into second places, followed by Gignac in third with 16, and Bordeaux’s Diego Rolan tied for fourth on 11 with Guingamp’s Claudio Beauvue and Lyon’s Nabil Fekir.
Currently the top two teams in Ligue 1 qualify for the Champions League every season. The third is forced into a playoff and the fourth goes into the Europa League. However this season two French teams made it into the last eight of Europe’s elite club competition while no English ones did. If Ligue 1 teams continue to outperform Premier League sides on the continent UEFA may be forced to reexamine France’s coefficient.
For a league that many criticize as boring, Ligue 1 has in fact provided one of Europe’s most captivating competitions this season. In the Champions League, Ligue 1’s top two teams from last season have proved too much for the top Premier League sides to handle, with PSG knocking out Chelsea and Monaco overcoming Arsenal to progress. Meanwhile, Lacazette Ligue 1’s leading scorer, has found the net more often this season than any player other than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
When you start connecting the dots, it’s just possible that Ligue 1 may be the most underrated league in Europe at the moment.