European football correspondent
Once upon a time, France's major football forces were, logically enough, the big clubs from the two biggest cities. Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Marseille still duke it out against one another over who has the larger fan base and the greater prestige, and they still produce the most intense domestic fixture. But over the next week or so, PSG and Marseille find themselves peculiarly united: as underdogs.
Tonight, at the Stade de France, PSG take on Lille in the Cup final. The Parisians might count on a majority support among the neutrals, because of locale - although Lille is barely an hour away by TGV train - but they are up against the best side in France. Just ask Marseille. Lille lead Marseille, the defending Ligue 1 champions, by four points in the table, with three fixtures to play.
Marseille can close that gap to a point with victory tomorrow night at Lorient, but Lille, who have a better goal difference, will play their match in hand next Wednesday.
Le Championnat is a more refreshing, more captivating, more diverse league than it used to be. PSG and Marseille spent most of the Noughties cursing the smooth, ambitious organisation of Olympique Lyonnais, who collected seven successive championships from 2002 to 2008.
Bordeaux, under Laurent Blanc, now the France national coach, broke the apparent stranglehold of Lyon in 2009. Marseille then spied a new order, put behind them their years of internal disorder - changing owners, firing managers and, in the 1990s, punishments for corruption - and won their first title for 19 years last May. They looked to have the personnel and the coach, Didier Deschamps, to retain it. Then along came Lille.
It is 57 years since the northern club last won a French title, but under coach Rudi Garcia they play with an enterprise and confidence that is not typical of upstarts.
This term, Garcia's trick has been to get the best out of his front three, Gervinho, Moussa Sow and Eden Hazard. Lille's good scouting network meant that, as teenagers, two of the finest creative and attacking players from Africa and western Europe joined them young.
And this has been a season of blossoming for Gervinho, 23, the Ivorian; as it has for Hazard, the 20-year-old Belgian, whose desirability as a transfer target for clubs in England and Spain grows almost daily.
Gervinho has scored 14 goals this season, Hazard seven, but the chief contributor to Lille has been Moussa Sow, who arrived on a free transfer from Rennes - themselves title-contenders until the end of March - last summer. Sow has transformed from journeyman striker into, at 25, a lethal finisher and Ligue 1's top scorer, with 21 goals.
Sow is a Senegal international who was born in France and did his apprenticeship in the French Federation's academy system, which makes him a news maker right now.
His background as a dual-national means he is a ready example of why the Federation have become concerned to restrict the numbers of players in their academies who might later opt to represent countries other than France. This issue ignited controversy last month after senior Federation bosses were secretly recorded discussing unofficial quotas that would evaluate youth players according to their racial origins.
But the stark fact is the Sow of Rennes was never of interest to the senior France national squad. And Lille, like most French clubs, have several dual-nationals on the staff. They include Rio Mavuba, the industrious central midfielder whose father went to the 1974 World Cup with Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mavubao was born at sea after his pregnant mother left her native Angola by boat during the war there.
He was a French international in his teens, and his Lille performances have recommended him again to Blanc. The central defender Adil Rami, who turned down several approaches to represent Morocco, has chosen to play for France, and thrived with Les Bleus.
Rami, recovering from injury, is a doubtful starter for today's Cup final, which would be a loss for Garcia. But what Lille have shown this season is a surprising strength in depth. The campaign has seemed a long one, but they look like a squad with enough fuel in the tank for at least one half of their attempted double.
Arles v Toulouse 7pm
Monaco v Lens 7pm
Nancy v Nice 7pm
Caen v Montpellier 7pm
St Etienne v Rennes 7pm
Valenciennes v Auxerre 7pm
Lorient v Marseille 11pm
Brest v Lyon 11pm
Bordeaux v PSG 9pm
Lille v Sochaux 9pm