Race To Avoid The Drop Heats Up
With Ligue 1 now into its final two rounds of matches, the relegation battle is taking increasingly unexpected twists. Despite there being nine sides still facing the drop, it looks likely that the bottom three will be made up of the current sides placed 14th or lower. The current bottom three have been hovering around the drop zone for the past few months although the sides just ahead of them have also been flirting with the dreaded drop in recent weeks.
Looking at each team’s cases individually, some of the sides down there still have reasons to be optimistic whilst others will be left fearing the worst. However, as the last few weeks have proved at both ends of the table nothing is yet conclusive and with Ligue 1 famed for its last day drama, we look set for a nervy finale.
L’AJA dropped like a stone under Laurent Fournier having only won four league games by the time he was dismissed in week 28. However, despite still sitting bottom of the pile, the team have looked revived under Jean-Guy Wallemme of late. The question then is why did the club take so long to act when axing Fournier sooner could have brought a few more precious points.
On the pitch the side have looked better since the injection of pace that Roy Contout, Olivier Kapo, Alain Traoré and Dennis Oliech have provided. Previously the side looked predictable with Traoré and Oliech the key players and few others contributing anything of note. Once Traoré’s purple patch at the start of the season evaporated, an over-reliance on the pair cost the side and their lack of depth and poor recruitment policy following a mass of summer departures were exposed. The Burkinabe’s absence through the African Cup of Nations and injury proved costly and the long-term absence of Delvin N’Dinga has been hard to offset too.
With Marseille and Montpellier to play the situation is not looking rosy for l’AJA. Members of the top flight now for over 20 years, the side who were playing Champions League football just over a year ago are now facing up to the reality of dropping into Ligue 2.
DFCO have been unlucky at times this year in some games but overall I feel that they have lacked the necessary quality to stay in the league. Gaël Kakuta, Benjamin Corgnet and Brice Jovial have proved themselves talented enough to remain in Ligue 1 and other members of squad have looked good in spells but a lack of consistency will not have convinced anybody of their long-term Ligue 1 credentials.
Patrice Carteron has done a good job with limited resources but what else could he have done with this team? Survival is the best the club could have hoped for at the beginning of the season and to still be in with a shout with two games to go is commendable. Not cut out to be a top-flight outfit in my opinion despite the fact that I have enjoyed having them in the league.
With Toulouse and Rennes left to play, these tough fixtures suggest to me that the side will just fall short and end up back in Ligue 2. Despite battling admirably to survive, a big loss of form post-Christmas has cost the side dear.
This season has been an unmitigated disaster for Brest. Good at home or at least tough to beat with a generally good defence, the side have been let down by poor attacking and a lack of presence past the midfield. The team needs investment and the writing has been on the wall for some time which I feel explains Alex Dupont’s departure. The club are trying to save the man who heroically masterminded their ascent to Ligue 1 some face and don’t want him to be associated with the team that eventually drops out of the top flight.
It is evident now he has departed that Nolan Roux held the team together at times and without him they lack any presence up top. The mystery is why was more of his reported €8million transfer fee invested back into the squad when they were in a better position to negotiate? The man charged with filling his boots-Alexandre Alphonse-has only scored one goal in 11 games and the other January arrival Issam Jemâa has netted three in 15. Hardly banging them in.
With Valenciennes and Evian still to play, Brest arguably have the most enviable run-in of all the sides at the bottom. Both are winnable games despite Evian’s recent good form but much will depend on key man Bruno Grougi’s form as he is now leading the side almost single-handedly.
Having just moved out of the drop zone following the 1-0 win over Nancy, les Lionceaux could have finally pulled clear at the right time as they have been threatening to do since Eric Hély took over following the dismissal of Mehmed Baždarević. A raft of suspensions and injuries looked to have put paid to their chances but casting a glance to their last two fixtures, their odds are suddenly looking a lot better.
After putting back-to-back wins together immediately following Hély’s arrival in week 27, FCSM have steadily worked their way out of the bottom three and now realistically need just three more points to guarantee their survival which at times has looked perilous.
The question has been posed since Sochaux hit rock bottom-surely the side have too much quality to go down? With players like Marvin Martin, Ryad Boudebouz and Modibo Maïga in their ranks and given that they finished last season the answer is yes. However, it has taken them until now to really look like they stand a chance of avoiding the drop.
If the decision to axe Baždarević had been made earlier would the side be further clear of the drop zone? Possibly, and the side have improved since he left illustrating just how little faith the team had in their previous manager. If they’d had more time they would most likely be safe by now but despite morale damaging defeats such as the thumping at PSG a fortnight ago, the team have rediscovered their fighting spirit in the limited time Hély was given.
With Caen and Marseille left to play, Sochaux have two winnable fixtures in which to find three points. Marseille although a much better side on paper have nothing left to play for this year and will not prove as stern a test as expected, however les Lionceaux will not want to head into that last game of the season needing a victory to ensure survival. A victory away at Caen would confirm that and will prove a massive motivating factor to the side.
Although not currently residing in the bottom three, Ajaccio face arguably the biggest challenge in trying to retain their Ligue 1 status for next season. Testing games against Lyon and Toulouse mean that Olivier Pantaloni’s men could well be relying on results below them to keep them up but their resilience at times this year has been impressive and they have fought for their lives.
Les Ours would be unlucky to go down this year given how they have clawed their way back from what looked like a bleak position pre-Christmas but they also lack the necessary quality to really achieve anything in the league. Good results at the right time have buoyed them but more often than not they have been unable to follow them up with a strong result which then undoes that previous hard work. Like Dijon, the Corsicans lack star quality with the exception of Mexican international Guillermo Ochoa.
Out of the Lyon and Toulouse matches, Pantaloni will have most likely singled out Lyon at home as the must-win game for his side. One of the league’s best sides but also prone to complacency when faced with smaller opposition, last week’s 1-1 draw with Brest will give ACA some encouragement. Playing away in Toulouse is never easy (just ask Lyon who got thrashed 3-0 there last month) and Ajaccio will not be expecting to get much from their final game of the season. Win or bust v Lyon.
Of all the teams in contention to go down, Nice look the most assured of their position currently. A string of good results through March and April took them clear of the drop and with two games left to play they sit 14th.
Les Aiglons’ biggest problem is their over-reliance on star man Anthony Mounier. All too often they are a one-man team and when the talented winger does not perform, neither does the team. They need more balance to their play and they do not possess enough presence up top. Despite having lots of quality in midfield even after the loss of Emerse Faé mid-season, the side do not create nearly enough chances.
Capable of playing good football and more suited to life in top flight than a lot of their relegation opponents, they need to move away from the Mounier-first mentality that afflicts them a lot of the time. These last few games have been perfect practice for that given his absence through injury since theLorientmatch.
Is René Marsiglia really the man for them long-term? I think not on the evidence of this season. They need a canny operator in the mould of Christian Gourcuff to really lead them forward or an ambitious manager from a smaller club who is capable of getting his teams to play good football.
With games left against Evian and Lyon, I can see Nice getting three points from one of these fixtures to stay up. They seem to be able to raise their game at times when you least expect it so facing two sides in better form I expect them to deliver one big performance.
With that said, I will now put my head on the chopping block and attempt to predict who I think will stay up and who I think will make the drop.
Safe: Sochaux, Nice and Ajaccio.
Relegated: Brest, Dijon and Auxerre.