With PSG on top, tight battle for runner-up in France
By SAMUEL PETREQUIN, AP Sports Writer
PARIS (AP) — With its formidable attacking might, Paris Saint-Germain has killed any sense of suspense in the French league halfway through the season.
Apart from a freak loss to promoted Strasbourg this month, the super-rich star-studded team has been nearly flawless, amassing 50 points in 19 games to open up a nine-point gap over defending champion Monaco heading into the winter break.
Unable to stop Monaco’s march to the title last season, PSG has spent big and the investment has proved to be highly efficient, immediately. In less than six months, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe — the world’s two most expensive players — have gelled well with the rest of Unai Emery’s squad.
Early tensions between the Brazil striker and Edinson Cavani have quickly vanished, and the attacking trio of Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar has been too much of a challenge for most of the French league’s defenders: PSG has scored 89 goals in 27 games in all competitions so far, failing to score only once.
After selling many important players, including Mbappe, Monaco has abandoned any hopes of defending its title. With coach Leonardo Jardim still in the process of rebuilding the side that reached the Champions League semifinals last season, Monaco does not play the same brand of free-flowing soccer as last season.
But Jardim’s players have shown enough character to recover from four league losses and an early elimination from Europe’s top competition. With PSG in a class of its own, the main interest in the second-half of the season will be the fight for the other Champions League places between Monaco, Lyon and Marseille.
Despite PSG’s dominance, it has been an exciting first half of the season with clubs averaging 2.64 goals per game as the tight battle for the runner-up spot shaped up.
Behind Cavani, the league’s top scorer with 19 goals, Monaco forward Radamel Falcao and Lyon pair Mariano Diaz and Nabil Fekir have greatly contributed to the quality of play in a league often criticized for the lack of spectacular entertainment.
Cavani has been averaging more than a goal per game to move one goal behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s all-time scoring record for PSG, with 155 goals in 224 games, while Falcao has been essential in keeping Monaco in the mix with 15 goals already.
Diaz has been one of the revelations of the season after joining Lyon from Real Madrid as a replacement for Alexandre Lacazette. Diaz left Madrid to get more playing time after Zinedine Zidane recommended him to Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas. The move has proved to be another astute transfer for Aulas, with Diaz scoring 13 goals, as many as the resurgent Fekir.
PICK OF THE PLAYERS
Neymar and Cavani have had the most consistent impact.
Cavani, who has been thriving since Ibrahimovic left PSG, has scored 53 goals this year, as many as Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The Uruguay striker has rightly been criticized for his struggles in front of goal in the past, but his brilliant and ruthless performances this year, combined with his work ethic, have helped him gain a new leadership status.
Neymar’s impact in his first months at PSG has also been massive. The Brazilian has not only delivered 11 goals and nine assists, he has also been an inspiration to his new teammates with his effortless technical ease, dazzling runs and dribbles, making them believe they can win the Champions League.
Lyon has produced another gem in Houssem Aouar.
The 19-year-old versatile midfielder is the latest player to emerge from the club’s academy, following in the footsteps of the likes of Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Alexandre Lacazette.
Aouar’s flair and technique have not gone unnoticed as his three goals and two assists have reportedly drawn interest from Barcelona and Arsenal.
“This is just the beginning for him,” Lyon coach Bruno Genesio said. “He needs to keep working hard and he’ll keep making giant strides.”
Behind the clubs chasing Champions League qualification, Nantes has proved to be the best of the rest to round up the top 5, six points ahead of sixth-place Nice.
Under the helm of Claudio Ranieri, who guided Leicester to a surprising Premier League in 2016, Nantes has found defensive stability, conceding only 18 goals.
Ranieri has been true to his principles by building a solid defense in which right back Leo Dubois has been flourishing. Despite a clear lack of attacking power, Ranieri also seems to have found a reliable striker in Emiliano Sala.
POINT TO PROVE
Two mainstays of the French league, Saint-Etienne and Bordeaux, are in disarray.
Lauded for its attacking game last season, Bordeaux has gone through a miserable run that has left the club only one point above the relegation zone, level on points with Saint-Etienne.
Despite striker Malcom’s seven goals this season, coach Jocelyn Gourvennec has been trying to find answers to his team’s defensive frailties, tinkering with his lineup without result. Following a run of only one win in 13 matches in all competitions, Gourvennec’s job hangs in the balance.
Looking for an jolt, Saint-Etienne — the most decorated French club with 10 league titles — has recently promoted Jean-Louis Gasset to coach. He lost his first game in charge.