Ligue 1 review: Petty-Saint Germain, the fighters from Rennais and unexpected progress

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PSG’s Pablo Sarabia, right, takes the ball away from Nantes’ Jean-Charles Castelletto during the French League One soccer match between Nantes and PSG at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes, France, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

“Weird” is the only effective way to describe round nine of the Ligue 1 season. Victories felt unconvincing, teams who were expected to lose won with ease and clubs who thought they had begun a new, positive stage in their development realized they still had much work to do.  

However, we begin with the most normal moment of the weekend, with Stade Rennais F.C. defeating Stade Brestois 29 on Saturday, Oct. 31. at Roazhon Park. Rennais held a grip on the attacking aspect for the majority of the match, with right midfielder Romain Del Castillo causing havoc in Brestois’ final third. 

Nevertheless, they’d ultimately be their own worst enemy, with a lack of positional awareness by left winger Jeremy Doku and veteran center midfielder Steven N’zonzi gifting Brestois right midfielder Franck Honorat a goal early in the second half.  

Although it seemed as if the dreadful error would kill Rennais’ momentum, it would actually make them hungrier, knowing they deserved to be on top. They would finally find the breakthrough in the 65th minute off a free kick by Del Castillo, who served in a beautiful ball to the far post, with center back Damien Da Silva heading it into the back of the net. The subsequent winner would come off a cross five minutes later, with center midfielder Benjamin Bourigeaud finding center back Naif Aguerd in the box, burying it in the bottom corner.  

Above all, this victory will create a solid foundation for “Les Rouge et Noir,” owing to the fight and grit shown by a team that has lacked this same courage both domestically and abroad. Therefore, this promising squad can begin to build some confidence, believing in their ability to fight for one of the top four spots in the league, while also building momentum before they travel to England to face Chelsea on Wednesday, Nov. 4.  

Rennes’ Jeremy Doku, left, vies for the ball with Sevilla’s Joan Jordan during the Champions League group E soccer match between Sevilla and Rennes at the Ramon Sanchez Pijuan stadium in Seville, Spain, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Angel Fernandez)

Rennais rose to third in the table with 18 points, while Brestois fell to 14th with nine points.  

Now, it is important to note that the rest of the matches about to be mentioned are not entirely “abnormal.” It is more the circumstances surrounding the respective victories or defeats that ultimately steal the headlines. Nevertheless, some results did leave fans scratching their heads. 

Let’s stay on Saturday, as the second match of the day saw league leaders Paris Saint-Germain travel to the Stade De La Beaujoire Louis Fonteneau to face FC Nantes. PSG manager Thomas Tuchel’s starting 11 was definitely one that saw multiple rotations made due to the large amount of fixtures in such a short amount of time. Forward Kylian Mbappé, center back Danilo Pereira and goalkeeper Keylor Navas were the only unchanged players in the squad.  

An entire change in midfield shows the depth in the Parisian squad. Rahinha Alcântara, Idrissa Gana Gueye and Ander Herrera were starters in a midfield that was average at best. Although it is easy to get tricked into believing the starters are substantially better than their counterparts, that has not been the case this season.  

These two midfields were almost identical in one key aspect: lifelessness. It felt as if they were playing in molasses, with their sluggishness spreading to the rest of the team. Moreover, creativity was extremely hard to come by, with few chances created for their forwards. To play devil’s advocate, their two most creative players in the middle of the park, Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes, are still not fully fit, meaning Tuchel’s men are going to have difficulty in an area they usually excel in.  

PSG’s Mitchel Bakker attempts to control the ball during the French League One soccer match between Nantes and PSG at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes, France, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

In contrast, there was a lot of creativity in Paris’s backline; the only problem was that this football was flowing freely through the defense, rather than by the defense. Nantes attackers dominated a backline made up of left back Mitchel Bakker, center backs Abdou Diallo and Danilo Pereira and right back Colin Dagba. On multiple occasions throughout the first half, the team in yellow and green could have put multiple past the French champions.  

A relatively quiet Moise Kean was taken out for 18-year-old midfielder Kays Ruiz-Atil, once again showing the lack of options at Tuchel’s disposal. He would have to take his chances if he wished to get back in a Parisian matchday squad, something he did to the fullest extent. Atil found Mbappé in the box, who then found Herrera at the far post to make it 1-0 PSG. 

From then on, it was all Paris. Mbappé was brought down in the box, converting the penalty and making it two for “Les Rouge et Bleu.” Still, Nantes had a chance to get back in the game after Dagba brought down right midfielder Marcus Coco in the box. Whereas Paris took their opportunities, Nantes did not, as Navas went down to his right and killed any hope they might have had. The final nail in the coffin came after midfielder Imran Louza lost it in his final third, gifting the ball to right winger Pablo Sarabia, who chipped it over the goalkeeper to make it 3-0. 

So, was anything weird about this performance? Not specifically. However, the lack of motivation in this team of superstars and exceptional role players is quite weird. Does Tuchel need to go? It’s definitely a possibility. His insistence on playing center back Marquinhos in midfield has come with its fair share of scrutiny; moreover, the same can be said about Pereira, who for finds himself as a member of the back four. Clearly, he’s not helping his cause.  

PSG’s Neymar reacts after he was blocked during the Champions League group H soccer match between Basaksehir and PSG in Istanbul, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Ozan Kose/Pool via AP)

Finally, the number of setbacks and injuries that Paris face year-after-year truly makes me believe the club is cursed. It may just be that they had to sell their soul in order to become a big team. Not only is Neymar Jr. set to miss the next four weeks due to a abductor injury, but now Mbappé may miss their crucial midweek fixture against RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League due to a thigh injury. To add on to the array of bad news, Leonardo Araújo was not present at the match, with many speculating it is due to his continued feud with Tuchel. It’s safe to say that all is not well in Paris.  

The Parisian side remained in first with 21 points, while Nantes fell to 17th with eight points.  

Sunday, Nov. 1 proved no different, with unexpected results and surprising performances only adding drama to an already exciting season. 

OGC Nice defeated Angers SCO in convincing fashion, traveling to the Stade Raymond Kopa and putting three past Stéphane Moulin’s men. With that win, they rose to fourth in the table with 17 points, while Angers fell to 11th with 13 points. The result itself is not what should shock football fans, but more so the recent run of form by manager Patrick Viera and his men.  

Although they did lose to Bayer Leverkusen 6-2 in the Europa League in October, they had a solid month overall, defeating Nantes, AS Saint-Étienne and undefeated LOSC Lille. Furthermore, to be able to bounce back from such a gut-wrenching defeat is admirable in itself. They’ve also regained form in the Europa League, beating Hapoel Be’er Sheva F.C. 1-0 to get level on points with the three other teams in their respective group. 

Manager Claude Puel and his Saint-Étienne squad truly have lost the magic that saw them perform extremely well in the beginning of the season. This time, they lost at home to Montpellier Hérault SC 1-0. The loss of defender Wesley Fofana to English side Leicester City FC has truly hurt their defense; a man who served as a general for the backline is desperately needed, as the tactical indiscipline on the part of “Les Verts” will continue to hurt them.  

Leicester’s Wesley Fofana, left, reacts as he collides with Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette during the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Leicester City at Emirates Stadium in London, England, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Ian Walton,Pool)

Montpellier rose to ninth in the table with 14 points, while Saint-Etienne fell to 13th with ten points. Puel needs to get his squad playing to the level expected of them if he wishes not to be sacked by the board.  

The last two surprising performances came from AS Monaco and Olympique Lyonnais. Monaco defeated FC Girondins De Bordeaux 4-0 in a shocking display of dominance. We’ve rarely seen Kovač’s team be this clinical, something that will please the former Croatian international. His rebuild process continues to head in the right direction, and he will hope this continues next week when they face a fiery OGC Nice side.  

Monaco rose to eighth in the table with 14 points, while Bordeaux fell to 12th in the table with 12 points. 

Finally, Lyon demonstrated two things Sunday night: They are regaining their old form, and manager Rudi Garcia is the man for the job. Key players Houssem Aouar and forward Memphis Depay led their squad to the Stade Pierre Mauroy, where they were able to split the points against an undefeated Lille side.  

Although a draw may seem meaningless now, the accumulation of these points will prove their importance in the late stages of the season. On the other hand, Lille manager Christophe Galtier will be proud of his men, who are France’s only undefeated teams, both domestically, and abroad.  

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