Season Review – Winning is a State of Mind

Nice Winners

PSG may have taken the title and the Coupe de la Ligue, and will play Marseille for the Coupe de France next weekend, but there are other winners in this Ligue 1 season, maybe not as showy or shiny, but worthy of recognition.

Nice came fourth on 63 points, which if PSG win the cup will mean automatic group stage qualification for the Europa League. After finishing 17th in 2013/14, where they spent a fair amount of time battling relegation and relying on David Ospina in goal, they made it to 11th in 2014/15, during which a very strange transfer saga started to play out. Picking up Hatem Ben Arfa on a free from Newcastle in January after an unsuccessful loan to Hull, the club were told that the former French international couldn’t play for them as he had already played for two clubs in a season – even though the Newcastle appearance was for the youth team in a friendly match. The LFP weaselled their way out of ruling on the issue, FIFA’s view stood, Ben Arfa’s contract with Nice was rendered null and void, and the player was openly considering bringing an end to his professional career.

Six months later…

Ben Arfa scored in his second game for his new new club. And in his third. Got an assist in his fourth. Back-to-back braces in his 7th and 8th. He had seven goals in Nice’s first ten games as they pummelled their way up to fifth place. He finished the season their top scorer with 17 goals and 6 assists. Meanwhile, Valere Germain got 14 goals and six assists, Alassane Plea had another six goals, and pocket-sized tyro Vincent Koziello was skittering around the midfield winning plaudits all over the place.

Claude Puel’s squad was a tearingly enthusiastic bunch, Ben Arfa at 29 the oldest of the top 11 for minutes played (centre back Mathieu Bodmer the only player over 30 in the squad), with an average age of just 25. When the goals dried up a bit, an unexpected defensive solidity became apparent, at least at home, and they approached the run-in with a chance of third place. A 1-0 defeat away at Nantes was the match that killed that – they then made heavy weather of the must-win clash with Saint-Etienne (winning 2-0 but only after Les Verts had two men sent off) and despite a win against Guingamp on the final day, it was out of their hands. Monaco beat Montpellier to take the last Champions League spot.

While third was the dream, fourth might actually turn out to be the better placing; with Ben Arfa being linked to everyone (except Newcastle and Hull – ed.) and Germain’s loan from Monaco up this summer, they won’t be as strong in attack next season. But with the wealth of young talent they have, and under the canny eye of Puel, they could well make the Europa league fun to watch.

Caen were another great watch this season, finishing seventh in only their second season back in the top flight. After a 13th-place finish last season, a baby budget, one of their top players off to the Premiership (chap called N’Golo Kante, you may have heard of him), not much was expected. Then they crashed into the top three, went as high as second, and were fourth at Christmas, with a set of stats that would baffle any analyst; chaos is inherently unpredictable, and therefore difficult for opponents to cope with.

They had a bad spell in February, losing three on the spin, that seemed to take the wind out of their sails, dropping them down to tenth; there was a recovery, but it was not quite enough. Another bad spell in April, culminating in a 6-0 hammering away at PSG, killed their European hopes, and although they staged another recovery to end the season in style, beating Nantes and Bordeaux, they were too far adrift. However, the team that came third in Ligue 2 just two seasons ago were an inconsistent but fun breath of fresh air.

Angers were an even more impressive story, perhaps, a newly promoted side not expected to do that much after finishing ninth and then third in Ligue 2 in previous seasons. They opened with a 2-0 win away at Montpellier, which was at the time considered more an indictment of MHSC than anything else; but then ASCO kept going. Over twenty years after they were last in the top flight, they spent several weeks in second and were constantly in the top 6 until game 26.

Built on defensive solidity, when that failed, they didn’t quite have the attacking verve to come back, and the start to 2016 was brutal, including a 5-1 revenge-hammering by PSG (Angers having held them to a 0-0 draw at the Stade Jean-Bouin in December). However, under Stephane Moulin’s practical eye, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, beat Monaco 3-0 in the following game, and even managed a goal-fest in their own 5-1 hammering of Lorient. They may have finished with three straight defeats, the last the match that kept Toulouse in the top flight, but that first half of the season was a blueprint for how to approach a promotion season.

Finally, a hat-tip to Gazelec Ajaccio. Yes, they were relegated, but they still had a chance on the final day, and few people would have predicted that at the start of the season. Last season they finished second in Ligue 2 after coming third in the previous season – in the third tier. Back-to-back promotions made many worried that this would be a step far too far, and when they managed just three draws in their first ten games, it certainly looked like that was the case. But then they beat Nice 3-1 to kick off an eleven-game unbeaten run that included beating Lyon, to drag themselves to safety.

Sadly, they couldn’t keep it going; they only won another two games after that run (although satisfying one of those was against Bastia) and lost the last three. Yes, they ran out of gas – but they gave it a damn good go with the smallest squad, the oldest squad, the smallest budget, the smallest stadium, and a fair number of players who’d been with them in National, including goalkeeper Clement Maury, top-scorer Mohamed Larbi, and towering centre-back Rodéric Filippi.

As PSG seem to have the league (and associated silverware) sewn up for the next forever, we need to look elsewhere for our winners. And if you look below the top of the Ligue 1 table, you can definitely find them. Chapeau to all these teams – and good luck next season, whether that’s in Ligue 1, Ligue 2, or the Europa league.

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