PSG v Lille & Monaco v Lyon: The Ligue 1 run-in shouldn’t be this exciting

As Monaco came out for the second half of their 35th Ligue 1 game of the season on Sunday night at the Stade Louis II, everything was looking rosy.

They were 1-0 up against direct rivals Lyon. If they could hold the lead, the Monegasque would go stay third but go seven points ahead of Lyon in fourth, just one behind second-place PSG and two behind leaders Lille with three games to play. Essentially, a Champions League place would be all but secure and Monaco would be in the thick of Europe’s wildest title race.

Fifty-five minutes later, after a red card, four goals, a late mass brawl and four more red cards, it was the Lyon players celebrating and Niko Kovac’s Monaco troops flopping to the floor dejected in defeat. It was a crazy half of football, one that perfectly encapsulated the Ligue 1 season.

With the result – a 3-2 win for Lyon inspired by Memphis Depay – the race for the third Champions League spot between Lyon and Monaco is well and truly back on, Lyon just a point behind their hosts. And with PSG and Lille four and five points ahead of Monaco having both won on Saturday, the race for the Ligue 1 title looks to be a direct battle between them.

Frankly, it is a huge surprise that we got as far as early May with three teams in the running. This is Ligue 1. PSG are the thoroughbred against carthorses, or at least that is supposed to be the way it pans out. Yet the 2020-21 campaign has been anything but a one-horse race.

If we may flog this dead equine metaphor just a little more, then the start of the season gave PSG a significant handicap. They lost their first two games, physically and mentally exhausted after their exertions in last year’s Champions League latter stages, blowing things open for the rest.

Top spot belonged to six different sides in the first eight weeks of the campaign, the last of them PSG themselves after they had finally found their stride. But a late Cesc Fabregas penalty gave Monaco a 3-2 away win at the Parc des Princes in late November and kicked off another poor run for PSG, which eventually resulted in Thomas Tuchel getting the boot after a very public row with sporting director Leonardo.

Lille and Lyon both moved ahead of PSG and the title race was very much back on. Despite the recruitment of Mauricio Pochettino to the PSG hotseat in January, it has stayed that way, PSG’s home form in the league just as erratic as before.

This season, PSG have lost eight Ligue 1 games, more than in any campaign since the Qatari takeover of the club in 2011. The most recent of them came in early April as they lost to Lille, again at home, to let their slender lead slip once more.

In that game, PSG were sliced open by a quick counter and Neymar was sent off for some utterly unnecessary argy-bargy with Tiago Djalo. Old habits die hard. Lille, for their part, were solid and resilient, just as they have been all season, a team in the image of their coach Christophe Galtier.

Despite having to sell their best players every summer – think Gabriel Magalhaes and Nicolas Pepe to Arsenal, Victor Osimhen to Napoli and Rafael Leao to AC Milan – ex St-Etienne boss Galtier, alongside Portuguese sporting director Luis Campos, has been able to mould a brilliantly well-balanced squad. Lille have two good options for each position in Galtier’s hard-running, counter-attacking 4-4-2.

In February, Galtier said: “It’s very satisfying to be top and it’s true that it’s a great achievement. But all of that will count for nothing if we don’t stay demanding of ourselves right until the end of the season. We need to insist on the small details that will make the difference at the highest level.” That mentality is taken onto the pitch by his players.

Among the standouts have been young attackers Jonathan David, Jonathan Ikone and Jonathan Bamba. Then there is former Golden Boy Renato Sanches, Dutch defender Sven Botman and Turkish internationals Yusuf Yazici, as well battling veterans like Jose Fonte and Benjamin Andre. Perhaps the most impressive though has been a new addition, Burak Yilmaz.

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READ: Burak Yilmaz is living his career in reverse as he inspires Lille’s title hopes

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Yilmaz was 35 and had never played in a big five league before this season, but he has taken to Ligue 1 like a duck to water and his goals have kept Lille’s noses in front over the past month. One against Metz put Lille in the lead the week after they had beaten PSG, two against Lyon turned the game in Lille’s favour two weeks later, and one against Nice on Saturday – another brilliantly well-placed shot from the edge of the box – mean Lille will win the league if they win their last three games.

Until Lille’s win over Lyon, there had been four teams in with a chance of the title with just five games remaining. And though Lyon and Monaco may be out of it now, they both deserve credit for taking the fight so far.

Under ex-Bayern Munich boss Kovac, Monaco have played some brilliant football, pressing high and scoring 73 league goals with the front pair of Kevin Volland and Wissam Ben Yedder meshing beautifully and feeding off the service of a revived Fabregas.

“We run so much,” Monaco defender Djibril Sidibe told L’Equipe earlier this month. “We’ve been working for 10 months, hard work. The coach transformed us… If I showed you the GPS results, you’d be shocked. It’s as if we have one more player than the opposition.”

Lyon, meanwhile, managed to carry some of the form that they showed in the Champions League at the back end of 2019-20 into this season and Memphis Depay in particular has been scintillating, scoring 19 and laying on 10 more in 35 games. It was he who kicked off the comeback against Monaco, weaving through the defence and hitting a left-footed shot, via a slight deflection, into the corner of the net.

Lyon’s form prior to the Monaco game – going out of the cup to Monaco and losing to Lille – had see rumours surface that Lyon will look to replace manager Rudi Garcia with Lille boss Galtier come the end of the season, but Garcia was bullish in his press conference, talking of his “fierce desire to finish on the podium” and saying that “few teams will take nine points [from the last three games], so if we take them we will be in the Champions League”.

In that, of course, is the admission that the title, although still mathematically possible, is gone. Lyon will have to content themselves with battling Monaco for third while Lille and PSG go for top spot. Both, like Lyon, will be be looking at their run-in thinking they need nine points from nine.

“We’ll keep going until the end,” said Lille’s ex-Southampton defender Fonte on Saturday afternoon. “There are three games left and I believe each one is difficult. Lens next Friday is the most important thing. It’s the derby, but after that we also need to beat Saint-Etienne, and perhaps Angers.

“Lens is an important match, but we must treat all the games like a cup final. We’re there, in the fight, and we’re prepared to win every match.”

They’ll need to, as PSG are hot on their tails. After their win against Lens on Saturday, in which Neymar played and scored, they have Rennes, Reims and Brest to overcome.

“The key in the title race is to take each match very seriously,” Pochettino said last week. “Managing the squad will be decisive to have a competitive team on the pitch every game.” With the Champions League and Coupe de France still to play for as well, that balancing act will be difficult and possibly decisive.

Whatever happens, the Ligue 1 run-in promises to be explosive.

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