League Focus: Relegation Battle Warms Up French Winter


One of the most curious, and most-quoted, statistics of the first half of the Ligue 1 season was a by-product of Paris Saint-Germain’s growing dominance of French football. Going into Christmas, second-placed Monaco were closer to the bottom three (13 points away) than they were to Laurent Blanc’s league leaders, who had forged a 19-point gap between the two. 


As that suggests, there is a great deal of congestion elsewhere in the table, and, for starters, it promises to make for a fascinating relegation battle. It is safe to say that bottom club Troyes are gone. Their fortunes haven’t changed since dumping long-serving coach Jean-Marc Furlan and Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at Lyon extended their record-breaking winless start to 20.  


Yet for the remaining two places, it’s all up for grabs. Just how tight it is can be underlined by looking at Gazélec Ajaccio, one of the in-form teams in the country in recent months. Their 2-2 draw at Monaco on Saturday extended their unbeaten run to 10 matches, but Thierry Laurey’s team are still only 5 points above the drop zone. 


The biggest game at the bottom this weekend took place in the north-west, between Reims and Toulouse. A 3-1 victory for the visitors - only their 4th of a poor season to date - made the situation at the bottom even tighter. Les Violets remain in 18th place, but are now just a single point behind Reims in 17th.  


Underpinned by a terrible disciplinary record - Toulouse have had nine players sent off this season, almost twice as many as any other team in the division, and collected 43 bookings - it has been hard for coach Dominique Arribagé to find any sort of stability. Only nine of the squad have made more than 10 starts as we go into the second half of the campaign.  


The under-pressure coach’s worst problems have been at the back. Only the lanterne rouge Troyes (39) have conceded more than Toulouse’s 34. Le Téfécé have used three goalkeepers this season and the most experienced of them - Ali Alhamada and Mauro Goicoechea - rate in the bottom three performers of the squad so far with 6.11 and 6.09 respectively. 16-year-old Alban Lafont - in echoes of the ascension of Gianluigi Donnarumma to the AC Milan XI - has been considered the best option in recent weeks and has already averaged 7.13 from his six matches. 


Lafont is not the only young talent on the Toulouse books, with 18-year-old defender Issa Diop and 20-year-old Zinedine Machach also making an impact. Unfortunately some of the more experienced players around them have failed to step up to the plate. Martin Braithwaite started the season well and has six goals to his name, but has scored just once since the start of October. This is despite the fact that the Dane averages 3.6 shots per game, by far the highest in the squad and the fourth highest in Ligue 1, behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic (4.6), Caen’s Andy Delort (4.3) and Michy Batshuayi of Marseille (3.7). 


League Focus: Relegation Battle Warms Up French Winter


So Wissam Ben Yedder’s return to form has come at a very opportune moment. His hat-trick against Reims took him onto seven goals for the season to go with his three assists, while six of those strikes have come since late November, coinciding with an upswing in Téfécé’s form. He again looks like the player who scored 14, 16 and 15 goals respectively in his last three Ligue 1 seasons. 


How the club, and president Olivier Sadran, manage Ben Yedder’s situation this month is crucial. Part of his sluggish start to the season was probably down to the disappointment of a move to Sevilla falling through, and the Franco-Tunisian is now the subject of serious interest from Lyon and Marseille. Persuading Ben Yedder to happily stay until summer is surely vital to Toulouse’s survival hopes. 


How Reims, and their own embattled boss Olivier Guégan, could do with somebody like him. Top scorer Nicolas De Preville (4 goals) is one of only four players in the squad to have scored more than once this season. Their biggest name - former Liverpool striker David N’Gog - has three in 11 starts, but was unavailable on Saturday through illness, and it hurt Reims badly. Both sides had only three shots on target - Toulouse’s, obviously, were taken by Ben Yedder, which made all the difference. 


Goals, or lack thereof, could be crucial in the final reckoning. Montpellier drew a blank in Pascal Baills’ first match as coach, losing at home to Bordeaux despite having 12 efforts on goal. They remain two points above the drop zone and, worryingly, it was the eighth league match this season in which the 2012 champions have failed to score. Cheick Diabaté’s goal for Toulouse - his first since December 2014 - steered Willy Sagnol’s team six points clear of the bottom three and he will hope to recover his best scoring form from here. Just below Bordeaux, Lille are still the league’s second lowest scorers (16) but can at least rely on the division’s third-best defence (14 conceded). 


The difficulty in predicting the exact composition of the bottom three lies in the fact that they’re aren’t any no-hopers outside Troyes. Guingamp, who remain second from bottom, dug out what their coach Jocelyn Gourvennec called “a good point” from their Sunday night visit to Marseille. It put an end to a sequence of five straight league defeats, but they had cause for regret too.  


OM had twice as many efforts on goal of the Brittany club (15 to 7) but the visitors had a great late chance to win it, as new signing Mevlut Erdinc headed over Jimmy Briand’s superb delivery when well placed. The Turkish international has a good goalscoring record in France, but is coming off a miserable, goalless 11-game spell at Hannover. He needs to find his feet again quickly. 


Perpetual strugglers Bastia can hardly be blamed for an empty-handed weekend, having visited PSG. Ghislain Printant’s side didn’t land a single shot on target and only had a 23% share of possession. They too are struggling to find a talisman, with joint top scorers Floyd Ayité (one goal since the second game of the season) and Gaël Danic (one goal since September) drying up. That Printant turned to the previously outcast Brandão at the Parce des Princes underlined Bastia’s desperation. 


It looks like the fight to avoid the drop will go all the way to the wire. All we can be totally sure of is that Toulouse would be very brave to cash in on Ben Yedder this month.


Who do you think will be relegated from Ligue 1 this season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below

League Focus: Relegation Battle Warms Up French Winter