x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Will there be one more twist in Ligue 1?

The French league is going down to the wire, Montpellier lead but the tense run-in is affecting the players.

Montpellier’s Younes Belhanda, left, and Olivier Giroud celebrate a goal last month, but had an on-field spat last weekend.
Montpellier’s Younes Belhanda, left, and Olivier Giroud celebrate a goal last month, but had an on-field spat last weekend.

Which is most fluid of Europe's top five domestic leagues? Where do hierarchies shift most often?

Certainly not in Spain, where the last five championships have been won by Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Not Italy, where the trio of Inter, Milan and Juventus have won all the scudetti since 2001.

England may be about to proclaim a new Premier League champion in Manchester City. It would represent a novelty, since no club other than Manchester United or Chelsea have won that championship since 2004.

The Bundesliga? Over the past five years, it has had three different champions.

But France is far more varied than any of them.

Where le championnat once appeared stuck in the hands of Lyon, it is now as hard to hold as a wet bar of soap. Lyon's last of seven consecutive titles arrived in 2008, then Bordeaux took it, then Marseille, then Lille, and in all probability a fifth different champion in five years will be parading silverware next weekend.

Lille still have an outside chance of retaining it, and they have a stiff breeze in their sails, having won their past five outings, including the 2-1 win over second-placed Paris St-Germain that added prolonged intrigue to the sprint towards the finishing line.

But Lille need both PSG and leaders Montpellier to falter over their next 180 minutes to end up ahead. They trail Montpellier by five points and PSG by two.

Symptoms of strain under pressure have been most marked among the table-toppers.

Montpellier, a small provincial club who were in Ligue 2 three years ago, have defied every expectation in sustaining their status at the summit, though the tensions of the run-in have brought down some players.

Younes Belhanda, the Moroccan midfielder who has been so influential, will miss the remaining games following his red card in the 2-2 draw against Evian. He was furious with colleague Olivier Giroud, Ligue 1's leading scorer this season, for not volunteering to take a late penalty that would have earned Montpellier all three points. Instead Souleymane Camara took the spot-kick. It was saved.

Montpellier bounced back impressively last weekend with a win at Rennes, who travel to PSG tomorrow. Rennes still have points to play for, as they are chasing a fourth-placed finish, to qualify for the Europa League.

Monpellier, however, have had their usual rhythms disrupted. Practice sessions, usually open to members of the public to watch, have been closed by the coach, Rene Girard, in the past few days.

He perhaps has been stung by the rather smug words coming out of Lille and PSG about their ability to keep their cool where Montpellier could not. Or perhaps Girard has secrets he wants to remain secret about how he will approach the final fixtures. Montpellier's last game is against Lille.

Even if Montpellier pull off a championship, their president, Louis Nicollin, suspects it will not be the beginning of a dynastic rule over Ligue 1. Several players, Giroud and Belhanda among them, will be subject to bids from richer clubs in the summer and, besides, reckons Nicollin, there is a juggernaut revving up immediately beneath them in the current table, a PSG who have already smashed spending records in Ligue 1 in the year since their new Qatari shareholders bought a majority stake.

"This is our one opportunity to win it," said Nicollin, Montpellier's president since 1974, "because in the next seven years, PSG will dominate the French league."

Nicollin is in the majority in believing so, and will hope his words might unnerve PSG over the next eight days, reminding them of the expectations weighing on them. Carlo Ancelotti, PSG's coach, is under great pressure from his bosses to deliver a title now, not just for the seven years starting in 2013.


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