Two Davids, one Goliath. That is how things have transpired in France’s premier footballing division this season. It comes as an utter shock that, in round 24, LOSC Lille and Olympique Lyonnais are above the French champions, and have a legitimate chance at dethroning the richest club in the country. Nevertheless, although Paris Saint-Germain are under immense pressure, they are the most renowned club in the country for a reason, something they once again proved this weekend against their biggest rival.
However, before the distinguished derby, it was Olympique Lyonnais that opened up the weekend, hosting RC Strasbourg Alsace at the Groupama Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 6, in the hopes of maintaining their grip on second in the league table.
Things looked grim from the offset for Strasbourg, as center attacking midfielder Adrien Thomasson received a red card only 14 minutes into the contest. Thomasson first received a yellow card for a strong tackle on Lyonnais center midfielder Thiago Mendes, before receiving a second yellow card less than a minute later for expressing his disagreement with the referee’s decision. Unsurprisingly, “Les Gones” firepower in attack would overwhelm the hindered opposition.
Lyonnais center midfielder Houssem Aouar would take advantage of a poor square ball by the opposition in their own half, playing it through to forward Memphis Depay, who placed it into the bottom left corner to put the visitors up 1-0 in the 19th minute. From then on, it was all Lyonnais; Mendes was able to split the defense open with a gorgeous through ball to left winger Karl Toko Ekambi, who lofted it over the goalkeeper to give the mighty lions a 2-0 advantage thirty minutes into the match.
Lyonnais maintained possession of the ball for the majority of the second half, creating a multitude of opportunities that either barely missed the target, or were stifled by the “Les Coureurs” defense. However, the overwhelmed defense was destined to collapse sooner or later. This came in the final 30 minutes of the contest, when they conceded a free kick at the edge of the box. Depay stepped up, and smashed it with ease into the top left corner for the third and final goal of the contest.
This dominant victory means Lyonnais will remain in second with 52 points, and will sit above PSG for at least another week. Strasbourg also see no movement in the league table, as they remain in 16th with 25 points.
Rudi Garcia’s men are on fire, and no one seems to be able to stop the blaze; the squad have won 20 out of their last 21 matches and have only lost two games all season. No doubt, Depay has led this charge with his 13 goals and six assists, leading the team in both categories. Not far behind is Ekambi, who’s found the back of the net 11 times and assisted on five occasions. All-in-all, there seems to be no stopping this team at the moment, something that will annoy Paris-Saint Germain to no end, as the richest team in France look to secure their seventh league championship in the past eight seasons.
From one team that have recently found themselves in a legitimate position to threaten the Parisian giants, to another who have acted like a pestering mosquito in the ear of the Qatari owned club, Lille have performed excellently throughout the entirety of the season, finding themselves above PSG on multiple occasions. The squad’s success this season has come from their pressing ability; when they regain possession, they focus on getting the ball out wide to their pacey wingers, who either play it back towards the middle of the pitch, or take on the fullback one-on-one.
This exceptional style of play was seen once again in the club’s 2-0 win over FC Nantes on Sunday, Feb. 7. Eight minutes into the game, left winger Jonathan Bamba was found out on the wing, with the French international quickly playing it into the box; a poor clearance by the defense allowed the ball to fall to forward Jonathan David, who smashed it into the bottom left corner to give “Les Dogues” an early 1-0 lead.
Despite the early fireworks, the rest of the match would be a relatively uneventful stalemate that, for the most part, was dominated by the superior Lille side. Christophe Galtier’s men were in no rush to score, as they knew the match would open up sooner or later because Nantes had to find the equalizer.
This inevitability finally came in the late stages of the match, as “Le Maison Jaune” would lose the ball in their own half, which saw center midfielder Andre find right midfielder Timothy Weah, who played it back towards the middle to David, who did a subsequent give-and-go with center midfielder Renato Sanches before beautifully putting it into the top left corner for his second goal of the match.
This result sees Lille stay in first with 54 points, while Nantes remain in 18th with 19 points.
Galtier will have been skeptical of the club’s ability to succeed in the new year. Although they were in top form from August through December, the real test always begins from January through May. The experienced French manager’s skepticism will have now died down tremendously, and he may finally begin to believe the club has a chance at becoming Ligue 1 champions, something they have not done since the 2010-11 season.
Sunday, Feb. 7 was the 100th time PSG and Olympique de Marseille squared off in France’s biggest rivalry dubbed “Le Classique.” The historic derby has been dominated by “les rouge et bleu” since Qatar’s takeover of the club in 2011, which gave Paris far more financial backing than their hated rivals. The Parisians entered the contest having beaten Nimes Olympique 3-0 in their midweek fixture; the Olympians also had a midweek fixture, which saw them blow their 2-0 advantage over RC Lens, having to settle for a draw.
Whereas Paris were beginning a new chapter under manager Mauricio Pochettino, the same could not be said about Marseille. Manager Andre Villas-Boas had announced his resignation on Feb. 2 citing disagreements with the club’s recruitment policies, meaning they would have to go into the bout with interim manager Nasser Larguet at the helm.
A huge development leading up to the match was the fact that Neymar Jr. would most likely not be included in the starting lineup, as he was recovering from gastroenteritis and would not be deemed fit enough. This did end up being the case, and the Brazilian would have to watch from the sidelines for the majority of the contest.
Paris got on the scoresheet in quick fashion, with right winger Angel Di Maria leading the counter attack and playing it through on goal to forward Kylian Mbappe, who found the back of the net to give them the 1-0 lead in the eight minute.
However, the excellent start soon turned sour when Di Maria went down with a quad injury in the 11th minute, having to be replaced by fellow winger Pablo Sarabia. The club will be anxiously waiting to learn about the injury’s severity, with their Champions League bout against FC Barcelona a little more than a week away. Despite the scary moment, the team’s momentum did not take a blow; forward Mauro Icardi made it two for the French champions in the 24th minute, getting on the end of a cross by right back Alessandro Florenzi to flick it off his back and into the net.
The rest of the contest was relatively uneventful, with Marseille attempting to break down a stubborn PSG defense. Their search for a goal gave Paris a large amount of space, which they used to their advantage on the counter attack. Even with acres of space, the Parisians struggled to create clear-cut chances. Although Neymar’s introduction in the 66th minute was expected to liven up the attack, the front three still looked lackluster in comparison to their other performances this season.
Just before the match’s conclusion, Marseille center attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet received a red card for going studs first into the back of center midfielder Marco Verratti.
This victory means PSG remain in third with 51 points, while Marseille maintain their position in ninth with 33 points.
Overall, Paris is continuing to adapt to Pochettino’s style of play. This match was the continuation of a growth we have seen over the last couple of weeks, where the team concedes possession before hitting the opposition on the counter attack. The club will look to continue this form before their heavyweight clash with Barcelona in the Champions League.