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Jan 10, 2012

PSG leading race for Ligue 1

Disneyland Paris provided the backdrop for the Ancelotti family's Christmas, with Carlo and co. sharing Mickey Mouse with Jose Mourinho and offspring among others. Given his renowned facial tic on camera, a lucrative endorsement deal with the theme park as the face of their surely soon-to-be-announced 'Enchanted Eyebrow' rollercoaster is most likely in the pipeline. But for now, Ancelotti will have to scrape by on the €6 million annual salary Paris Saint-Germain are willing to pay for his services.

Exactly which services are required is not immediately obvious. The club enjoyed their Christmas atop the table for the first time in 15 years, three points clear of the chasing pack and with the prospect of a first Ligue 1 title since 1994 wholly realistic. That, though, was not enough to keep Antoine Kombouare in a job - with the only surprise about his departure being that he lasted this long. The former PSG defender was Ligue 1's version of Steve Kean, the immovable man, though in Kombouare's case it was the board who had the knives - or in the case of sporting director Leonardo, his bone-shattering elbow? - out for the man in the dugout, rather than the fans. The project of the new Qatari owners, who 'thoughtfully' played The Godfather theme at Ancelotti's press conference in Doha last week, clearly does not include anyone un-sexy enough to have played for Aberdeen. That - it seems - was Kombouare's fatal flaw, though surprise exits in both the Europa League and League Cup certainly did not help his cause.

Ancelotti, a former Champions League winner as a player and coach, has the publicity clout that the new hierarchy wanted, and also the dressing-room presence Kombouare allegedly lacked. The feeling was that a man who had built a steady reputation as coach of Valenciennes could not be trusted with or contain the fragile, fickle, egocentric talents now at his disposal. Given his public fallings out with Stephane Sessegnon, which ended in divorce, and Nene, which finished in a frosty reconciliation, perhaps they had a point. However, the fact the owners feel they had to make the move for that reason probably says more about the personality of some of the squad than the shortcomings of Kombouare.

While Nene has already had a dust-up with Mathieu Bodmer, Jeremy Menez is not too keen on passing the ball to anyone, especially Kevin Gameiro, while Javier Pastore believes he is just that much better than everyone else - "There's many a time I move and my team-mates don't follow me. In France, they play with their heads down," he said last month. Things could get still worse for Ancelotti, PSG's new nanny-in-chief. Kaka, Pato, Florent Malouda and Keisuke Honda are all strongly linked while even Carlos Tevez was mooted as a target before Leonardo politely/sycophantically/sensibly - take your pick - stepped aside to allow his former love, AC Milan, the chance to possess their very own wilful Argentine.

Not that Kombouare has left Ancelotti, whose appointment also cements Leonardo's own position, all the dirty linen to launder. Though the 'Fantastic Four' of Gameiro, Menez, Pastore and Nene may not have quite fired as expected in the first half of the season, Kombouare built Ligue 1's best defence on goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, despite lining up 15 different back four combinations in front of the impressive Italian in 19 games.

"We have a great responsibility, because the club has big ambitions," said Ancelotti, who - along with freshly-installed assistant coaches Claude Makelele and Paul Clement - must be aware a title win with panache is the minimum their employers expect. "It's a nice responsibility to have, though, as it's a highly-stimulating challenge. We all want to do something big, because the club has a great tradition and we want to establish ourselves on the European scene." A streaky last-gasp French Cup win over fifth division amateurs Locminé on Sunday for his first competitive game in charge gave Ancelotti a sense of just how stimulating the challenge will be.

While Ancelotti's say-so played its part in PSG cooling their ardour for David Beckham, reigning champions Lille do have an Englishman in their ranks in Joe Cole, who has done everything but don a beret and opt for snails with his pre-match pasta in a relentless charm offensive since joining on loan from Liverpool. Cole is unbeaten in the 15 league games he has played with Rudi Garcia's side, and has contributed tellingly as they built imposing momentum with a 17-game unbeaten run that stuttered only slightly with a 4-4 draw with struggling Nice before Christmas. Like PSG, Lille will be unfettered by European competition for the remainder of the season, and if Eden Hazard can be persuaded to see out the campaign, they look like posing the most significant threat to PSG.

Another club challenging at the top is Montpellier, whose president Louis Nicollin was typically forthright in his assessment of Carlo Ancelotti's appointment at PSG. "You've got to be mad to take on that bloke for €500,000 a month," Nicollin declared. "Great coaches are ones that win things with nobodies." Nicollin clearly has not seen much of Chelsea's John Obi Mikel. The Montpellier chief will have at least spared his own coach René Girard his acerbic tongue after a remarkable opening half of the campaign.

Only Real Madrid, Barca, Manchesters United and City, and Bayern Munich scored more goals before Christmas in Europe's big five leagues - albeit from fewer games - than Montpellier, who would have headed PSG at the halfway stage of the season but for Girard's men winning only a single point in their last three games before the break. However, their current second place promises to be the high watermark of their campaign with a number of key performers, including the delightfully-talented Younes Belhanda, disappearing to the African Nations Cup. Top scorer Olivier Giroud will stay at the club, despite the attentions of Newcastle United, but the team's heavy reliance on the towering French international-cum-catalogue-model for goals means they are only a tweaked hamstring away from trouble.

Fourth-placed Lyon too blotted a rather neat first-term copybook with defeat to Valenciennes before the break, and a formidable-looking fixture list for the first two months of 2012 should confirm that this will be a rebuilding year under Rémi Garde, albeit a promising one. Rennes in fifth also do not have the staying power, and the not-so-dark horse to emerge from the pack will undoubtedly be Marseille.

Eleven points down in second place behind leaders Bordeaux at the same stage of the season two years ago, l'OM roared back to win the title, and though they are a point and four places worse off now, Didier Deschamps' side certainly have the bit between their teeth. After a shocking start, which left them bottom of the table with three points from six games, Marseille have picked up a further 28 in 13, a tally bettered only by arch-rivals PSG, who were dispatched royally 3-0 at the Stade Vélodrome in November.

With Loic Remy delivering on the promise that had many comparing him to a young Thierry Henry, and summer addition Morgan Amalfitano proving increasingly inspirational, Deschamps' men have dragged themselves back into contention. "We can't get back the points we've lost, we've only rectified the situation," admitted DD. The rocky relationship he has with sporting director Jose Anigo and pudgy forward André-Pierre Gignac - a January target of Fulham coach Martin Jol, who presumably needs a body double - as well as the Nations Cup-enforced departures of Souleymane Diawara and André and Jordan Ayew are the only clouds on an otherwise bright horizon.

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