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Ten clubs are battling to avoid relegation in Ligue 1 this season


When Ligue 1 clubs voted for the division to be reduced from 20 to 18 teams, a handful of them were effectively voting for more relegation battles. With only 15 clubs now certain to survive, many are feeling the pressure of Europe’s tightest relegation battle. They may be questioning the wisdom of their decision.

A clear divide is developing in Ligue 1 this season: the top eight and the rest. Reims, in eighth, are five points above Nantes in ninth. While Will Still’s side are aiming for Europe, Nantes are just eight points clear of bottom-club Lyon. Approaching the midpoint of the season, 10 clubs are fearing the league’s rising tides.

The condensed bottom half of the table is partly explained by the strong starts made by the newly promoted clubs. Le Havre and Metz (the only club to vote against the reduction of the top flight in 2021) have succeeded thanks to pragmatic styles, neatly balanced squads and having reliable, experienced players. The centre-back Ismaël Traoré guided Angers through eight seasons in the top flight; he is now doing the same with Metz at the age of 37. Daler Kuzyaev joined Le Havre on a free transfer from Zenit St Petersburg in the summer and is proving to be one of the signings of the season. He brings Champions League-level experience, leadership and quality not usually available to a promoted side.

The promoted clubs have kept faith with their best performers from Ligue 2, made smart signings from other leagues and, most creditably, continued to prioritise youth. Centre-back Arouna Sangante (21) and attacker Josué Casimir (22) are aiming to follow Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet as leading alumni of Le Havre’s famed academy. At Metz, the impressive midfielder Lamine Camara (19), who will soon be the subject of significant transfer interest, has followed Sadio Mané and Pape Matar Sarr from the prolific Senegalese feeder club Generation Foot. Le Havre and Metz are not safe – they sit in 11th and 12th, respectively – but they have been consistent, competitive and should be confident of survival.

Their excellence has helped endanger last season’s upstarts. Clermont finished eighth last season, a monumental achievement for a club that has spent much of its existence in the lower leagues. Their success was based on shrewd scouting, a strong defence, the vision of midfielder Johan Gastien and the work of their energetic attackers. However, the departure of centre-back Mateusz Wieteska to Cagliari has been damaging and Gastien, son of coach Pascal, is now pushing 36. Clermont showed their street smarts in a battling draw with Lille this weekend – and they also held PSG earlier in the campaign – but they are second bottom having scored just nine goals all season.

Lorient make up the bottom three. After 11 games last season, they were second in the table, having been powered up the league by midfield creator Enzo Le Fée and powerful striker Terem Moffi. The club had taken a gamble on the untested young coach Régis Le Bris and it was paying off. But they slumped after Christmas and finished 10th.

Toulouse won the Coupe de France earlier this year but could be doing down.
Toulouse won the Coupe de France earlier this year but could be doing down. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The drop has continued this season. Moffi and Le Fée were sold in the summer for a combined €43m and, with the club unable to reinvest much of that money, they struggled to find worthy replacements. They have won just two of their first 15 games this season but Le Bris remains a smart operator – as he proved in those victories, against Lille and Rennes, and in a 2-2 draw with Monaco. Relegation would be unexpected – as well as disastrous.

Toulouse have enjoyed two spectacular nights this year but they are also in danger of going down. Their 3-2 win over Liverpool in the Europa League last month was perhaps the second best result in their history after their 5-1 thrashing of Nantes in the Coupe de France final in April. Both results show their potential, but their owners’ strict reliance on data is not always helpful. The summer sacking of Philippe Montanier, informed by statistical projections, was bizarre after they had won the cup and finished 13th in the table as a newly promoted team.

The appointment of the untested Spaniard manager Carlos Martínez Novell is yet to work out, although he is dealing with the loss of his entire starting midfield for free (even if Stijn Spierings has since returned on loan). Continuing to unearth cheap talent, such as passer extraordinaire Branco van den Boomen, who left for Ajax, was going to be tricky. If Toulouse go down, they will be blaming themselves rather than the trimmed table.

Lyon’s 3-0 win over Toulouse this weekend might appear routine, but it was anything but. It was just Lyon’s second victory of the campaign and they remain bottom. Their plight shows how troublesome Ligue 1’s competitiveness can be when combined with a club’s incompetence – as Bordeaux and Saint Étienne, who have won 16 league titles between them, discovered when they were relegated last year.

Lyon’s position is a result of financial strife, public infighting, erratic decision-making and weak recruitment. But they still hold more hope than most, largely thanks to Alexandre Lacazette. The former Arsenal striker scored a hat-trick against Toulouse, taking his record to 43 goals or assists in 51 games since his return last year. Lyon are still without a manager after Fabio Grosso’s sacking and they have a thin squad, low morale and are not hardened to relegation battles.

Montpellier, Strasbourg, Nantes and Rennes are also in danger of going down. The change to 18 clubs in the top flight makes getting out of Ligue 2 increasingly difficult. With the trapdoor closer than ever, many fans may feel that, in hindsight, by voting for the new format, clubs contributed to their own downfalls.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results

Show

Nice 2-1 Reims

Clermont 0-0 Lille

Metz 0-1 Brest

Strasbourg 2-1 Le Havre

Lyon 3-0 Toulouse

Lorient 2-4 Marseille
Rennes 1-2 Monaco

PSG 2-1 Nantes
Montpellier 0-0 Lens 

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Talking points

Lens beat Arsenal in the Champions League in October and they need another big result this week.
Lens beat Arsenal in the Champions League in October and they need another big result this week. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

Reducing the size of Ligue 1 and removing the Coupe de la Ligue from the calendar were partly done to help French clubs in Europe. Six qualified for Europe this season and five of them go into their final group games this week certain to be in Europe after Christmas. Four of the clubs could yet top their groups. Lens, the one club in danger of falling out of European competition, will reach the Europa League if they draw at home to Sevilla this week. Given Ligue 1’s waning coefficient and strong displays from rivals in the Netherlands and Portugal, a good collective performance is long overdue and desperately needed with that fourth Champions League spot in the balance.

The centre-back Abakar Sylla scored a 97th-minute winner as Strasbourg beat Le Havre 2-1 on Sunday, their first win since September. Strasbourg climbed to 10th in the table but remain just five points above the drop zone in what has been a disappointing campaign. It was hoped that Chelsea’s support and some exciting signings would propel Patrick Vieria’s side into European contention. However, his function style has not helped a young squad, even by French standards – €53m was spent on four 20-year-olds this summer – produce results. Their performances are improving slowly so keep an eye out for Strasbourg in 2024.





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