Ligue 1 – Champions League Race

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Although the Ligue 1 title continues to be theoretically kept alive by Paris Saint-Germain’s clumsy end-of-season form, the real interest heading into the closing stages of the season is over the race for the third and final Champions League spot.

PSG have long been assured of a place at Europe’s top table next season and there they will be joined by Lille, barring an astonishing collapse from Christophe Galtier’s young side, who have established an eight-point advantage over the chasing pack.

Thereafter, however, three teams – Lyon, Saint-Etienne and Marseille – are scrapping for a single place in what promises to be an intriguing battle.

OL start this sprint as favourites, not only because they have the strongest squad but they also have a three-point jump on Sainté and a further two on OM.

In usual circumstances, the Rhone giants would be expected to close third out from this position quite comfortably, yet they are a club in crisis having lost back-to-back games against lowly Dijon and Nantes.

Head coach Bruno Genesio announced in the wake of last weekend’s embarrassing reverse against Nantes that he will stand down in the summer, but given that star men Nabil Fekir and Memphis Depay were so easily dropped for that clash, it shows that all is not well at Parc OL.

Confidence amongst the squad appears to be at rock bottom, with goalkeeper Anthony Lopes still involved in a contract dispute and several others, among them Fekir and Memphis, likely to be on their way in the summer.

Indeed, aside from Martin Terrier, who has scored four goals in his last four league outings, it is difficult to pick a Lyon player in form.

Their run in promises to be complicated, with trips to Bordeaux and Marseille sandwiching a home match against Lille at the beginning of May.

Lyon fixtures:

April 19: Angers (h)

April 26: Bordeaux (a)

May 5: Lille (h)

May 12: Marseille (a)

May 18: Caen (h) *

May 25: Nimes (a) *

*provisional dates

Lose at home to Angers on Friday and the cat really would be among the pigeons.

 

Chasing them are local rivals Saint-Etienne, who would love nothing more than to return to Europe’s top table at the expense of their neighbours. One of France’s most historic and fervently supported clubs, they reached the European Cup final of 1975-76 but have not played the competition since 1982.

Headed by the wily Jean-Louis Gasset, Sainté have won three of their last four games, picking up 10 points in the process.

Their calendar looks rather more clement than that of their neighbours, but their poor away form an awkward trips to Reims this Sunday and Monaco in a fortnight could be sufficient to undo their challenge.

Saint-Etienne fixtures:

April 21: Reims (a)

April 28: Toulouse (h)

May 5: Monaco (a)

May 11: Montpellier (h) *

May 18: Nice (h) *

May 25: Angers (a) *

*provisional dates

 

Marseille, meanwhile, are the underdogs in this race, having struggled to play coherently for much of the campaign.

Mario Balotelli’s January arrival finally gave Rudi Garcia’s men the focal point they required in attack, but while the Italian has thrived and helped his team to achieve more consistent results, key men such as Florian Thauvin, who has said he will leave this summer if Champions League football is not available at the Velodrome next season, and Dimitri Payet have concurrently started to ail.

As such, Marseille have been thoroughly unpredictable, often scraping victories by narrow margins and without playing especially well.

Marseille fixtures:

April 20: Guingamp (a)

April 28: Nantes (h)

May 3: Strasbourg (a)

May 12: Lyon (h)

May 18: Toulouse (a) *

May 25: Montpellier (h) *

*provisional dates

 

Of the three clubs chasing the final spot on the podium, their final six games look the most inviting, yet their lack of consistency suggests that they have given themselves too much ground to make up as the season draws to what promises to be a thrilling conclusion.

 

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About Author

A football journalist specialising in the French and Scottish game, Robin has been writing professionally for over a decade. His career highlights include attending World Cups in Brazil and Russia, and Euro 2016 in France.

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