Whilst most of the recent Ligue 1 talk has been about the exciting battle at the top of the table, itself something of a welcome and long overdue return, an equally exciting scrap is developing towards the danger end of le classement.
With the bottom two facing automatic relegation, the team finishing in 18th place will go into a play-off against 3rd spot from Ligue 2. However, after a season of struggles, no 18th placed side would want to face off against a high-flying, high-spirited second-tier side. Ligue 1 sides will therefore still be aiming to avoid the dreaded bottom three. At the time of writing, it is looking increasingly likely that the tickets for those two automatic relegation spots have been reserved, with both Lorient and Bastia cast adrift.
The Breton side have struggled all season and have been ensconced in the bottom two since the second week of the season. Even a change of manager in November following the sacking of Sylvain Ripoll and the decidedly underwhelming appointment of Bernard Casoni couldn’t change les Merlus’ fortunes.
The problem for Lorient, well quite simply it’s two-fold; one, their defence has been too porous. Having conceded 53 goals, they have the leakiest defence by some margin. The new defensive recruits have not proved successful with the likes of Lindsay Rose and Steven Moreira struggling. The former has even now been shipped out, to Bastia of all places. They lost Didier Ndong in the summer and his presence in front of the defence has been missed, as has the brilliance of Raphael Guerreiro. If Casoni can’t sort the defensive issues out, then he may be forced to employ the bold (and arguably un-Ligue 1-esque) strategy of demanding a more attacking system with the onus on strikers Majeed Waris and Benjamin Moukandjo to find the net on a more frequent basis. It’s a tactic that could work but it’s asking a lot from the pair who have between them only scored three goals in 2017.
Their second area of concern has been a lack of consistency, especially with regard to their home form. Only four wins at the Stade de Moustoir represents the second-worst home form in the league. For teams struggling at the foot of the table, it is key to make every home game count in order to keep the morale up amongst players and fans alike. With the synthetic pitch at the Moustoir now having been replaced by a hybrid turf, many will naturally question whether this has been a contributing factor to Lorient’s poor form. If you aren’t going to make your home a fortress, then you must have the ability to nick points on away trips. Sadly for Lorient, they are lacking form in both.
Alongside Lorient and facing increasing worry are a fiery Bastia side. For the Corsicans, the problem seems fairly straightforward as it’s an issue that they have been facing for season after season: discipline. For the second campaign in a row, Bastia have hit double figures for red cards (with captain Yannick Cahuzac responsible for four on his own!). If you’re going to be finishing games with a numerical disadvantage and then facing matches with key players suspended, then the end result is obvious.
This season more than any other, however, Bastia are paying the price for their ill-discipline as only five wins represents the worst return in the league. They are now the only side in the division without a win in 2017, their total of three wins at Furiani – previously such a fortress – is the worst home form in the league, and two wins in the last 19 games equals relegation form in anyone’s language. Bastia have also been hit with off-field troubles with fans throwing objects at players and racist chanting resulting in fines, partial stadium closures and suspended points deductions. The deplorable racism aside, it does seem that the players’ behaviour on the pitch shares similarities with the actions of some in the stands, or maybe vice versa. Until both can learn where the line between passion and irresponsibility lies, they will forever remain a club with a tarnished reputation.
When it comes to that relegation/promotion play-off spot, it’s a case of “take your pick” as just eight points separate Dijon in 18th from Toulouse in 9th. From week to week, each of those sides falling within that group give reason for hope and reason for fear. Dijon, for example, give hope to those who focus on attack over defence with 37 goals scored only bettered by Montpellier, but their 44 goals conceded is only ‘bettered’ (‘worsened’?) by Montpellier, again, Metz and Lorient.
If you were to try and narrow down that grouping into a smaller number of likely candidates for that 18th place finish, you would probably be looking at the likes of the three promoted sides, Metz, Dijon and Nancy with maybe Caen. They have struggled for consistency all season, but won away at Saint-Etienne on Sunday. Whilst Lille are currently struggling, it would be fair to say they do have the quality to eventually move away from danger, even if they seem determined to show it in the briefest of glimpses. With the appointment of Sergio Conceicao, Nantes have struck lucky in hiring themselves a man to drag them up the table. Montpellier also have a magic man of their own in young forward Steve Mounie whose 11 goals and counting may prove the key to survival.
As we learned from Toulouse last season, however, even those sides who some (e.g. this writer) have written off can still produce a great escape. All may therefore not be lost, but for fans of Lorient and Bastia, the bells of doom are ringing that bit louder as each week passes.