Ligue 1 Preview: Which team will summon the spirit of Stallone?

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PSG’s Marquinhos scores his side’s second goal during a Group H Champions League soccer match between Manchester United and Paris Saint Germain at the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)

Rocky one. Apollo Creed is forced to select a local contender after his scheduled opponent is unable to compete due to an injury. Who is that opponent, you ask? None other than Rocky Balboa. A fight that was booked as an “exhibition match” exceeded all expectations when it went to an unprecedented 15 rounds, with each competitor giving it their all and refusing to concede. Although Balboa would unsurprisingly lose by virtue of a split decision, they made a pact just before the final bell that there would be no rematch.  

Paris-Saint Germain is Creed, the heavyweight boxing world champion who competes at the highest level of professional boxing. This competition, however, is only found outside of France, with the Parisian club more fearful of teams in the UEFA Champions League than teams in their own league. The local competitors are as follows: LOSC Lille, Olympique, Lyonnais, AS Monaco, Montpellier Hérault SC and Olympique de Marseille.  

In that order, those teams currently make up positions two through six in the table, with Paris Saint-Germain sitting two points clear at the top. Lille, Lyonnais and Monaco are similar to Balboa in the sense that they have experience. Rocky fought primarily in small gyms, and — by all accounts — was considered an amateur boxer. In effect, although he would be unmatched by quite a large margin, he at least could cling onto the basics of fighting. These three teams are in a similar position; although Lille last won the league in 2010-11, they finished runners up in 2018-19, and fourth in 2019-20. Most significantly, they have only lost one match in all competitions this season and currently sit atop their Europa League group with 11 points, having qualified to the Round of 16 with one game still to play.  

Similarly, Monaco have also had success, both domestically and abroad. The club has won eight league titles in their history, with the most recent one coming in 2016-17. Not to mention the fact that they nearly became the second French team to ever win the Champions League in 2004 when they faced FC Porto in the final, falling 3-0. Finally, the 2010s saw them make a quarter-final and semi-final, respectively, after a nine-year absence from Europe’s elite competition.  

Lille’s Burak Yilmaz scored his side’s second goal during the Europa League Group H soccer match between Lille and AC Sparta Praha at the Stade Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve d’Ascq, northern France, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

By the same token, Lyonnais have won the league title an impressive seven times, and just recently made it to the Champions League semi-finals, something they had not done since 2009-10.  

So, what’s my point? Well, it’s that PSG may not be fearful of these select three, but the Qatari-backed club knows they have a grasp on what it takes to compete at the highest level. However, in order to keep the French champions on edge, they must put their foot on the gas and be relentless when it comes to getting results. Why? Well, the month of December is right before the winter break. If any of these teams want to keep pushing for the impossible, they have to go into the break with momentum in order to have confidence going into an even more important stretch of the season: the last five months.  

However, let’s stay in the present. Lille are set to take on Monaco at the Stade Pierre Mauroy on Dec. 6 at 7 a.m. “Les Dogues” currently sit second in the table with 23 points, while “Les Monégasques” sit in fourth with the same point tally of 23.  

Lille go into the contest with momentum, having just come off a massive comeback win against Sparta Prague in the Europa League on Thursday, Dec. 3. Although the contest seemed all but lost for the French side when Prague scored in the 71st minute, Turkish forward Burak Yilmaz came in and did what he’s done all season: turn the game on its head. He scored three minutes after coming in to tie it at one a piece before making it two four minutes after, giving Lille the victory and clinching their spot in the Round of 16. As previously mentioned, Yilmaz’s form should come to no one’s surprise, as he is the club’s top domestic scorer with six goals in 11 games. Despite his solid efforts, he is not the only dangerous player on the squad. Winger Jonathan Bamba leads the team in assists domestically, tallying five in 12 matches played.  

In Europe, promising attacking midfielder Yusuf Yazici leads the club with goals, scoring six in the four matches he’s played. In addition, Jonathan David leads his team in assists with two in his last four games. 

Lille’s Jonathan David, center, fights for the ball with AC Milan’s Matteo Gabbia, right, and Ismael Bennacer, left, during the Europa League Group H soccer match between Lille and AC Milan at the Stade Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve d’Ascq, northern France, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

To say head coach Christophe Galtier’s squad is playing above what is expected of them would be an understatement. The team’s ability to counter at will is only strengthened by their pacey wingers, threatening any defense in the league. Be that as it may, Niko Kovač won’t be too fussed about all this, especially with the way his team is performing.  

Monaco have not lost a game since the end of October, their most recent victories include a stunning 3-2 comeback win over the Parisian giants, and a 3-0 pummeling of Nîmes Olympique. Although their recent form is quite convincing, they need to begin showing consistency against big teams. Although they did defeat PSG, they have been dominated by other top contenders, such as a 4-1 loss to Lyonnais in October. If the squad can prove to be consistent on Sunday, then they will continue to pose a legitimate threat to the league leaders.  

Olympique Lyonnais travel to the Stade Municipal Saint Symphorien to face FC Metz on Sunday, Dec. 6 at 3 p.m. It would be a surprise to see “Les Gones” travel back to Lyon without all three points considering their recent form. They last lost in September — yes, September — and last dropped points on Nov. 1 to a difficult Lille side. From then on, all their matches have been victories.  

Their position in the table must be accredited to Dutch superstar Memphis Depay. Not only is the forward the club’s top scorer in the league, having put it in the back of the net five times in the 12 games he has played, but he also leads Lyonnais with four assists. A key point to remember is that Garcia’s men are not in European competition this season, primarily due to last season’s campaign ending early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, they won’t have the fatigue other clubs will face, which will allow them to continuously compete at a high level.  

As previously mentioned, the likes of Depay, midfielder Houssem Aouar, and forward Karl Toko Ekambi will simply be too much to handle for a Metz side that sits 12th in the table and that is coming off a tough loss at home to Stade Brestois 29.  

Lyon’s Karl Toko Ekambi scores a goal during the French League One soccer match between Lyon and Reims in Decines, near Lyon, central France, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

Now, let’s go over the two teams that are not even considered amateurs. In no way, shape, or form do they embody the shape of Rocky because they simply do not have the experience to know what will be expected of them if they attempt to stay on pace with PSG. These two teams are Montpellier and Marseille.  

The difference between this Marseille team and the three previous teams is not in the amount of title they have won. After all, they have been crowned champions of the league a massive 10 times, have been the Coupe de France 10 times, and, something Marseille fans never let Paris fans forget, are the only French team to have ever won a Champions league, defeating AC Milan in the 1993 final.  

All of this success is great, but does recent history show this same amount of prestige? Well, the answer is a resounding no. This week, Marseille finally broke their dismal record of 13 consecutive losses in the Champions league, defeating Greek side Olympiacos F.C. 2-1. Before that, they had failed to score a goal or get a point in any of their previous 2020-21 Champions League matches. As a result, they were eliminated with two group stage games in hand. Although they were runners-up in the league last year and were Ligue 1 champions in 2019-20, they simply do not have the “X” factor that teams like Lille, Lyonnais and Monaco have.  

These three teams have been able to perform in Europe and have shown up in the league as well. The majority of Marseille’s points have come from unconvincing, lethargic draws, which also makes me heavily question the fight in this club. For that reason, I do not list them as an “amateur,” but as an up-and-coming.  

Marseille kicks off Round 13 when they travel to the Stade Des Costieres and take on Nîmes Olympique on Friday, Dec. 4 at 3 p.m. The front three, which is made up of winger Dimitri Payet, winger Florian Thauvin and forward Darío Benedetto, can be deadly—key words, “can be.” They have proven to be wildly inconsistent, which is why I cannot truly tout André Villas-Boas attacking as being deadly. Still, they have shown up in the past two games, with all three scoring in their Round 12 victory over FC Nantes and Payet scoring twice in the team’s victory over Olympiacos. If they can once again perform at this level on Friday, it should be a convincing victory for “Les Olympiens.” 

Olympiacos’ Pape Abou Cisse jumps to control the ball during the Champions League group C soccer match between Olympique Marseille and Olympiacos at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Finally, Montpellier. This is a team that has won the league title only once, in 2011-12, and were last in the Champions league in 2012-13. As a result, it should come as no one’s surprise that one questions the legitimacy of their title challenge. Still, they have had impressive results this season, defeating Lyonnais in September and splitting the points with Monaco away from home in October. Moreover, they have won all of their November fixtures in convincing fashion, more-or-less. 

Nonetheless, the club needs to show more if they wish to be taken seriously. Although that may sound harsh, it is the truth. The team is set to face their toughest challenge yet when they welcome Paris-Saint Germain to the Stade de la Mosson on Saturday, Dec. 5 at 3 p.m. Although Michel Der Zakarian’s men should not be judged incredibly harshly over how they perform against France’s richest club — especially on the fact that they go into the contest with wind in their sails, having just beat Manchester United away from home in the Champions League. It can give us a good grasp of the squad’s level based not only on how they perform, but how they deal with the pressure.  

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