It’s not even March and already three of Europe’s top five league titles have been all but decided. On Sunday, Manchester City and Atletico de Madrid won to reduce the gap between them and the leaders in their respective leagues to twelve points. In the Bundesliga, currently billed as Europe’s most exciting proponent of footballing talent – both in terms of players and coaches – Bayern Munich lead by a monumental seventeen points. Even in Italy there appears to be a gulf between the top side and the rest, with champions Juventus on course to retain their Serie A title, as they sit six points clear of Napoli. In each cometition there seems to exist a club far superior, leaving the rest of the league to compete in relative futility. Not in France.
Super rich Paris-Saint-Germain find themselves top of Ligue 1 by three points, ahead of Olympique Lyonnais, who are persistent with their pressure upon the Parisiens.
On Sunday night, Paris-Saint-Germain, consisting of a plethora of international stars, managed by an Italian, watched by the world awaiting the appearance of a certain Englishman and funded by the state of Qatar, defeated rivals Marseille at Parc des Princes. The elite of France sat uncomfortably in the presidential seats and private boxes, demonstrating a distinctly frightening growth in the power and interest that is being invested in the French capital’s capital club. PSG were fortunate to win against a Marseille side that battled fiercely against the blizzard of snow and the formidable Salvatore Sirigu, who was on top form. The Parisiens looked very beatable, however, and the game, though it ended 2-0 in their favour, was a clear indication that the contest for the Ligue 1 title is far from being concluded.
Suggestion that Ligue 1 is an inferior league is quickly becoming little more than fallacy. While there appears to an imbalance in the financial prowess of the top teams and an emergence of a disturbingly international landscape to French football’s appeal, imbalance does not necessarily exist in the competitive nature of the league. Ligue 1 may be shifting away from French football and becoming more like football in France but in terms of the division’s prominence as one of Europe’s most exciting, that may not be an issue. The French national side may have something to say about that in a few years time if the trend continues. After all, England and the exportability of the Premier League stand as potent examples of the incompatability of a rich top flight saturated with foreign talent and a nation yearning for quadrennial success.
That digression aside, Ligue 1 and almost ineluctably Paris-Saint-Germain as the main proponents, have kick-started a nouvelle vague of interest. PSG, who were dominant in the first leg of their Champions League tie with Valencia at the Mestalla, are not to be underestimated in Europe’s elite tournament even in this supposedly formative year for the club. Bordeaux are the only other French representatives in Europe, having defeated Dynamo Kyiv to reach the round of sixteen. Les Girondins find themselves in 10th place in Ligue 1, which would further allude to the idea that the division is growing stronger.
Midweek, there has been another bout of fixtures across the continent, largely incorporating the numerous and unpredictable domestic cup competitions that each nation seems to pride itself on. To add to the notable Real Madrid victory at the Camp Nou, highlighting Barcelona’s vulnerability in the absence of their ailing coach, Tito Vilanova, the Parc des Princes hosted Marseille once again, with the same outcome. Ibrahimovic scored both in the combative 2-0 win for the Parisiens, shedding light on PSG’s irresistible talents but also another instance of the capital club’s defensive diligence. Great sides are created by great managers and great managers ensure their defences are the best part of the team. Carlo Ancelotti could be setting a precedent for this upcoming league.
Demoralising though the past week may be for PSG’s rivals, Marseille particularly, Ligue 1 is still very much a wide open competition. Not only the mere three point gap but the significance of how hard and how capable Lyon and Marseille are of challenging is reason enough to watch French football. Last season’s champions, Montpellier, are sixth and fifteen points behind Paris but there is no ruling them out of Champions League place contention. More important is Ligue 1’s perpetual capacity to surprise and to have unexpected teams rise the table to challenge for such places. Nice, who finished thirteenth but just four points off relegation last season, now find themselves fourth and a point behind third placed Marseille.
PSG may be the principal exponents of Ligue 1 currently and to a large extent, there is good reason for that given the financial might and their premature heavyweight title in Europe. With some of world football’s biggest stars lining up for them most weeks, an investment of interest is natural, which it is not necessarily for the rest of the league. In view of its evident and perennial competitive nature, whether it is French football or quickly converting to international football in France, there is no reason why Ligue 1 cannot be one of Europe’s most exportable competitions.