More to Ligue 1 than PSG as Lyon, Marseille, Monaco battle for second best
Monaco's clash with Lyon last Sunday evening offered another breathtaking Ligue 1 encounter.
There were goals, emotion, intensity, twists, drama with Lopes (Rony) scoring against Lopes (Anthony) in the dying moments to win the match for Monaco despite Keita Balde being sent off just before half time.
It finished 3-2 in Monaco's favour -- the third time a match between these two ended with that score this season after Lyon's French Cup win on Jan. 24 and their victory back in October in the league as well.
If the level of a league and the quality of a season is based on the calibre of the matches between the best teams, then this is a vintage Ligue 1 campaign, maybe the best in years.
With PSG all-but certain to win the title, the other three are offering a fantastic race for the hugely important second place, which is a direct ticket to next year's Champions League. Every point dropped is a blow in this mini-league in itself. Every point gained could be huge come the end of the season.
In early November, it appeared clear that Ligue 1 was a one-horse race but everything was up for grabs behind PSG. They were four points clear but there were just four points between Monaco in second with 28, Lyon in third with 25 and Marseille in fourth with 24.
PSG are now 11 clear of the pack and heading for another league title. Behind them, the land has changed quite significantly, although the fight is still as fierce. Marseille are second on 51 points, one clear of Monaco and three of Lyon. All have a similar goal difference (+26 for Marseille and Lyon, +30 for Monaco).
It appeared Lyon were winning the battle for second as recently as three weeks ago. They just beat PSG with a bit of luck -- Neymar missed out, Dani Alves was sent off, Kylian Mbappe came off injured early and Memphis Depay scored a last minute winner -- a lot of talent and a great organisation. Since that victory, they have lost at Bordeaux (3-1) and at Monaco to fall behind the other two contenders.
Monaco have taken four points off Marseille (a 6-1 win at home and a 2-2 draw away), Lyon and Monaco have shared points with a win each and Lyon beat 2-0 Marseille at home back in December. The Marseille vs. Lyon on March 18 will be worth a lot because surely by then, the race will still be very tight.
There will be more tough matches to come and potential banana skins, though. St Etienne and Nantes will each play the three contenders again before the end of the season. Nice, Bordeaux and Montpellier will face two of the three. PSG host Marseille on Feb. 25 and Monaco on April 15.
So it could all go down to the wire with Monaco away in two of their last three league matches of the season (at Caen and Troyes) while Marseille (Nice, Amiens) and Lyon (Troyes, Nice) will be at home twice, including the final game.
There is also the European factor. Marseille have a very winnable Europa League round-of-32 tie against Braga to play and could well continue their run in the competition which would mean playing Thursdays and Sundays. Lyon face a tougher opponent in Villarreal but could well go through as well. On the other hand, Monaco only have one game to play a week until the end of the campaign.
A lot of the rest of the season will depend on the superstars on each team. Monaco are very dependent on Radamel Falcao's goals (17 already this season in the league). Marseille rely a lot on Florian Thauvin (13 goals, 10 assists) and Luis Gustavo, the outstanding leader of this team on and off the pitch. Lyon are not the same without Nabil Fekir at his best (16 goals and five assists) and without defensive midfielder Lucas Tousart (they've lost all three matches he's missed this season).
With just 14 games left, the road to second is still both long and short at the same time for these three contenders.
There's plenty of twists and turns left yet. One thing is for sure, though: we are in for a treat.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.