It could, perhaps, be argued that the quality of a nation’s domestic top flight league provides a pretty accurate barometer for the overall state of that nation’s national side. Take for example, the wonderfully ebullient Bundesliga and the reflected verve of Joachim Low’s Nationalmannschaft. So too, of course, the vigor and technical beauty of Spain’s Liga BBVA and its manifestation in the brilliance of the reigning World and European Champions. On the other side of the coin, one could point to the chronically meandering Eredivise and the increasingly sterile Serie A and see their representation in the deterioration of the Dutch and Italian national sides respectively.
So, what of France and the relationship between its implosive if gifted national team and it’s rather overlooked domestic league, Ligue 1?
Following France’s turbulent exit from the World Cup in South Africa the automatic presumption might be that Les Bleus are a national team in crisis, bereft of the harmony and the outright quality of their illustrious 1998 forbears. Similarly, most judgements of Ligue 1 are unflattering, with most outsiders viewing the division as nothing more than a breeding ground for gifted individuals destined for greater fame and fortune in England, Spain and Italy.
A closer inspection of both Ligue 1 and Laurent Blanc’s post apocalyptic national side would indeed suggest an interesting synchrony. However, the signs are that both are actually enjoying a somewhat robust ascendant.
To begin with Ligue 1, this season has signalled the beginning of a brave new dawn in French football. For once the axis of power shared by Bordeaux, Paris St Germain, Marseille and Lyon seems to have been broken, or at least, challenged. There are, one could quite feasibly argue, 9 realistic title contenders if one continues to entertain the early season promise of Lille (the league leaders), Rennes, Brest, St Etienne and Montpellier. There are currently only 7 points between Lille and twelfth placed Toulouse.
However, such an exciting conglomerate of title challengers shouldn’t be misinterpreted as proof of a league lacking in serious quality. For sure, Lyon, Bordeaux and reigning champions Marseille have taken a little longer than usual to warm up, but there is genuine talent in the ranks of the new challengers.
League leaders, Lille, for example, are playing the best attacking football in the country. With such attacking talent as Gervinho, Belgian whiz kid Eden Hazard and the league’s leading marksman Moussa Sow, Les Dogues cannot be discounted as mere early season pace setters.
Rennes and Brest have surely been the greatest revelations of the season so far. Stripped of Asamoah Gyan (Sunderland) and Jimmy Briand (Lyon), Rennes has made a barnstorming start to the season under Frederic Antonetti. Led by old head Stephane Dalmat, the promising Yann M’vila, given his first French cap this season and the explosive dribbler, Jires Kembo, the resurgent Britanny outfit are proving to be difficult to shake off, despite losing their lead of Ligue 1 in October.
The northern minnows of Brest have set Ligue 1 alight with a simple and aesthetically pleasing emphasis on forward-moving ball circulation, an approach that has seen Alex Dupont’s side grab top spot from Rennes. Brest gained a remarkable 21 points from their first 11 games and went 8 games without conceding a goal. Operating on the 19th smallest budget in the 20 team division, Dupont has moulded an unglitzy band of brothers founded on a strong work ethic. Indeed, 8 members of the usual starting eleven were members of the team that earned the club promotion from Ligue 2 only last season.
French football has been reinvigorated by an exciting changing of the guard. With the last two recipients of the meilleur joueur prize (best player in Ligue 1), Yoann Gourcuff and Lisandra Lopez, suffering prolonged phases of indifferent form, an exciting crop of talent has emerged. Eden Hazard (dubbed the ‘Messi of Ligue 1’), Yann M’Vila, Nene, Andre Ayew, Mamadou Sakho, Marvin Martin, Dimitri Payet and Clement Chantome will be fighting it out for the coveted prize this season.
Ligue 1 has always, like the Eredivise, been a selling league, and many of these emergent players will no doubt attract the usual covetous glances from Spain and England. Yet, at least there is this rich fountain of quality running through the league, providing the French game with an appetisingw, vibrant brand of football.
Indeed, it wouldn’t be a surprise if French clubs started to make a more consistent impact in the latter stages of the Champions League. Lyon’s journey to the semi finals of last season’s competition may suggest that Ligue 1’s continental mission is already in progress.
Such an increasingly healthy bedrock should surely only be good news for France’s national team. Indeed, the signs are that Les Bleus are slowly moving into calmer waters.
Having dusted itself off from its South African summer, the national side, under the pragmatic stewardship of Laurent Blanc, is gradually regaining its footing. The recovery has been slow and considered which is not surprising given Blanc’s own rather traumatic experiences as Bordeaux coach last season. Before the first leg of Bordeaux’s Champions League quarter final with Lyon, Blanc’s side were top of Ligue 1. However, in their final 10 matches Bordeaux took just 8 points and crashed to sixth, 14 points behind eventual champions Marseille.
The post-World Cup mutiny bans of Nicolas Anelka (18 games), Patrice Evra (5), Franck Ribery (3) and Jeremy Toulalan (1) has given Blanc the opportunity to start afresh and rebuild with a new set of eager and, arguably, hungrier players.
In have come Samir Nasri, Yann M’Vila and the reinstated Karim Benzema, while the likes of Alou Diarra, Lassana Diarra, Yoann Gourcuff, Mathieu Valbuena and Florent Malouda have come to the fore and assumed greater responsibility within the team. After the symbolic gesture of dropping the entire World Cup squad for his first game at the helm, a 2-1 defeat away to Norway, and then enduring an embarrassing 1-0 defeat at home to Belarus, Blanc has slowly and effectively fashioned his own team.
Since that defeat to Belarus, Blanc’s new France won its next three European Championship qualifiers 2-0 and sauntered past England 2-1 at Wembley. The signs are that Blanc’s France is re-discovering its self-belief and that a brave new regime is starting to take its own individual shape, unencumbered by the mutinous ghosts of last summer.
“There are lots of things we need to look at and work on”, said a cautious Blanc recently. Indeed, whilst the national team is far from the finished article and Ligue 1 is still very much a work in progress, there is no doubt that two very exciting football revolutions are taking place in France.
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