European football correspondent Ian Hawkey takes the temperature of the French football league at the season’s half-way mark:
Barely had the Ligue 1 season begun than the wheels came off two of the more plausible challengers for a title for which Paris Saint-Germain were already heavy favourites.
Poor Marseille, having waved farewell to several senior players in the summer, promptly lost their manager 90 minutes into the campaign, while the other Olympique, Lyon, spiralled downwards once their most creative player was struck with serious injury in September.
Marcelo Bielsa, the enigmatic, exciting but eccentric Argentine manager had achieved a cult following at Marseille in 2014/15. He then left them horribly in the lurch when he quit immediately after a 1-0 home defeat to Caen in their first match.
When Lyon’s Nabil Fekir, such a source of hope following his dynamic input to last season’s runners-up position, sustained ligament damage while with the French national squad, an injury that will keep him out at least until March, Lyon lost an important weapon. Morale has plunged since at Lyon, who were humiliated in the Uefa Champions League and languish in mid-table.
Half-time reports from Europe’s other top leagues:
So early on, PSG had seen their fiercest, and their competitive rivals, mess up or trip up even before they slipped into a stride that now makes even some of their previous seasons’ comfortable dominance of a league where their budget utterly dwarves everybody else’s seem relatively mortal.
PSG have 51 points, a landmark at the winter break, have yet to know defeat in the league and have been held to a draw only three times in their 19 fixtures.
Hence there are fewer questions than 12 months ago about coach Laurent Blanc’s capacity to handle the expectations of the club’s Qatari owners.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with 15 goals so far, seems determined, at 34, that if this to be his swansong campaign in France, he will make sure he continues to tower over the rest in the way he has since he was appointed to be PSG’s figurehead footballer.
Angel di Maria has fitted in smoothly and PSG have impressed in Europe, too, the better team over two meetings with Real Madrid in the Champions League, even if Madrid stole more than their rightful share of the points from their contests.
Nobody is keeping PSG real company at the top of Ligue 1, with Monaco, who sold off many of their best talents ahead of the season, a long way back.
The curiosity is how many unsung teams are in contention for a top-three spot, and possible Champions League access come May.
Angers, fresh from Ligue 2, are among them, so are Caen, and Nice are enjoying the unlikely renaissance of Hatem Ben Arfa, as watchable as anybody in PSG’s ranks and, earlier this month, spotted wearing the captain’s armband.
“If you had said a few years ago, he would captain a club, there’d have been laughter,” Nice manager Claude Puel said of the apparently reformed enfant terrible of French football.
Surprise of the Season (Angers): Promoted in the summer, they aimed merely for survival by May. Economists gave them scant chance of that as they rank 19th in Ligue 1 in terms of their budget. Yet they currently sit third in the table, disappointed to have dropped down from second.
Player of the Season (Hatem ben Arfa): Given that Ben Arfa was without a club at all from January until July, has a chequered history of reliability, his comeback has been a revelation. He has lit up Nice with goals and some vintage skill and is now an international again.
Flop of the Season (Lyon): They embarked with genuine hopes they could make their farewell months at the Stade Gerland, home of so many title celebrations in the early years of the 21st century, memorable. Last season's runners-up, alas, are out of Europe and ninth domestically.
Stat of the Season (Nine): The number of passes leading directly to goals that Angel di Maria has supplied for Paris Saint-Germain in his 14 Ligue 1 outings since joining the French champions.
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