With three teams making up the chasing pack behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain, but only two guaranteed places in next season’s Champions League group phase, the race for Europe is beginning to heat up. Currently PSG sit at the summit with a nine point gap between second-place Lyon, who have 35 points so far. However, both Monaco and Marseille also have the same amount of points – albeit with a lesser goal difference.
The top two teams in France will be guaranteed a place in the group stage of the Champions League, whilst the third placed team will enter the third qualifying round. As it stands, Monaco would enter qualifying and Marseille would compete in the Europa League.
Many expected Paris Saint-Germain to stroll to the league title this time around, after their second-place finish last season. The runaway leaders added to their already enviable strike force with the addition of wonder-kid Kylian Mbappe in the summer, and the young Frenchman has impressed with his creative talents from a wider position. The likes of Edinson Cavani and Angel di Maria have also ripped through Ligue 1 defences, with the Uruguayan finding the back of the net 17 times already and topping the goal scoring charts.
However, despite the signing of Mbappe perhaps being one of the biggest transfers of the summer, PSG’s £200m acquisition of Neymar shook the football world to its ancient foundations. Before the Brazilian put pen to paper the record belonged to Paul Pogba’s switch to Manchester United, but this was soon blown out of the water by the Parisiens. Despite its underlying dramas and shady negotiations, there can be no denying that Neymar has settled into French life with ease.
The former Barcelona winger has notched up six assists and nine goals in his first Ligue 1 campaign, but also hasn’t been without his controversies. Many saw his time in Barcelona as being overshadowed by the otherworldly brilliance of Lionel Messi, and his move to Paris could be seen at the player trying to thrust himself firmly into the spotlight. However, well documented arguments with Cavani and injury setbacks have marred the start of his campaign, although his exploits for PSG have played a large part in firing his new team firmly towards regaining the Ligue 1 title.
The chasing pack may be nine points behind, but they will have their attentions firmly focused on playing at the highest level in the Champions League next season. Lyon have impressed both pundits and fans with their attacking exploits, with 42 goals scored – the second highest in the division. Impressive victories over Monaco and St Etienne were topped off with a last-minute winner away at Amiens this weekend, and if Bruno Genesio’s team are able to tighten up at the back they are sure to have a real chance of a European place at the end of the season.
Last season’s champions Monaco have shown in spells that they are much more vulnerable than last season. The loss of Tiemoue Bakayoko to Chelsea is evident, but Radamel Falcao’s 14 goals so far and Joao Moutinho’s creative influence has fired Monaco to high scoring victories over Guingamp and Lille. Before narrow wins against Troyes and Angers, Monaco had lost heavily 5-2 to Porto in the Champions League and embarked on a four match streak without picking up a victory. It is hard to predict which Monaco side will turn up on a match day: it’s just as likely to be an ineffectual, disorganised side as the confident champions from last season that played with so much swagger and fluency. If Monaco can iron out these issues, then many would expect them to topple Lyon for a second place finish.
Fourth-place Marseille have surprised many with their performances this year, with former Newcastle wide-man Florian Thauvin recently being named the league’s player of the month. Rudi Garcia’s side are currently on an unbeaten run stretching back to late September, and hold a similar record to Lyon just with less goals scored. The gap between Marseille and fifth-place Nantes is eight points and it would be a surprise if Claudio Ranieri’s side were to gain European football next season.
Every side gunning for Europe has their weaknesses, but are scoring goals with ease. As the Ligue 1 season continues through its busy Christmas period, if any team drops points then they will be punished by the unforgiving nature of the league. Although Paris Saint-Germain appear to be overwhelming favourites to regain the league title, the quest for Europe is certainly something to keep a close eye on in France.