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Jan 10, 2013

A word to the wise

He may have won the Ballon d'Or four times in succession, but has Lionel Messi ever had a word invented in his honour? Zlatan Ibrahimovic has yet to be crowned the world's best footballer - other than in his own mind - but he has been the inspiration behind a neologism.

The forthright Swede has made such an impact since his summer arrival from AC Milan, he already has his own puppet in Les Guignols de l'info - France's version of Spitting Image - and the show has brought the verb zlataner ('to zlatan') into being. Banners in stadiums around France often feature the word, which - upon its recent entry into a Swedish dictionary - was defined as meaning 'to take charge of something with vigour, to dominate'. Ibrahimovic himself surprisingly even seemed bemused he could effect such a change, stating: "If it went into a French dictionary, it would be an honour."

It is more likely, however, that by the time the greying heads of the Academie fran├žaise ponder the new verb's virtues, Ibrahimovic will have already earned himself a chapter in French football's history books. A league-leading 18 goals were plundered in his 16 games in the first half of the season, the best total since Vahid Halilhodzic in 1984. The ex-PSG coach went on to score 28 that campaign; there is a good chance Ibrahimovic will get closer to Josip Skoblar's all-time Ligue 1 record for goals in a single season of 44.

That is because, after taking their time, PSG finally swung into top gear before Christmas. Defeat to Nice on December 1 looked to have put coach Carlo Ancelotti on the brink, but the Italian was pulled back by five straight wins - four in the league - to leave the club from the capital top dogs for Christmas.

Though they only lead Lyon, beaten 1-0 at the Parc des Princes in the penultimate game before the winter break, and Marseille on goal difference, the ferocious strength-in-depth of Ancelotti's squad, bolstered further by the arrival of Brazil's Lucas Moura this month, is something neither of their title rivals can come close to matching.

Egos seem to have been slightly deflated, too. Appropriately enough for a squad with such a Serie A slant, a meal in an Italian restaurant organised by back-up goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez at the start of December is hailed as the reason the players now appear to be united behind a common goal and left Ancelotti justifiably no longer grumbling he had a team of wilful individuals. The likely winter departure of Nene, frozen out of the first team after a hissy fit on the sidelines during the Champions League win over Porto in early December, will only enhance that feeling.

Though they only just avoided what would have been a monumental Coupe de France shock against amateurs Arras last weekend, PSG should not repeat their slip of last season when they allowed their halfway lead to eke away to the benefit of Montpellier, who - this season - appear to have forgotten much of what made them champions.

In a poll in Le Parisien on Thursday, 76% of the 100 Ligue 1 players they asked said PSG would be champions. The five Lyon players asked all said their club would triumph, and though the holders succumbed to minnows Epinal in the cup last weekend, OL do appear PSG's most likely and yet unlikely rivals. After club president Jean-Michel Aulas' public, Cantona-esque rant about dressing-room "dinosaurs and pharaohs" last summer, the departures of stalwarts Cris, Kim Kallstrom and Aly Cissokho, allied to Hugo Lloris heading for Tottenham, made a successful season as likely as an Ibrahimovic mea culpa. When Steed Malbranque, who had played less than half-an-hour in the previous year, was offered a contract after keeping fit with the squad over the summer, the club that dominated French football in the noughties was all but a laughing stock.

There was not even a smirk or cheeky schoolboy giggle, however, when coach Remi Garde recently revealed he goes "to sleep dreaming of the title". Malbranque has been magnificent, even raising calls for him to finally be capped by France, while youngsters such as Samuel Umtiti, Alexandre Lacazette and Clement Grenier have helped old-stagers like Lisandro Lopez and Anthony Reveillere maintain a high quality of performance. Remy Vercoutre, so long seen as a career back-up 'keeper in the Steve Harper mould and dressing-room cheerleader, has proven he can play a bit too.

It is hard to argue with Garde's claim that "the gap between PSG and us depends on PSG, not us", but another factor, the dreaded bottom line, may well be what fatally undermines OL's chances. Though Aulas has backed away from initial claims he would sell two players this January - apparently now only one will go - a €28 million hole in the budget needs filling, and while PSG have just signed a massive deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority, worth some €200 million annually come 2016, OL have no such saviour riding in on a petroleum-fuelled steed.

Bafetimbi Gomis, the side's top scorer with 11 in the league, has been strongly linked with a move to the English Premier League, though Yoann Gourcuff, the €22 million signing - who, ironically, had shown signs he can still play this season prior to injury - may well be the sacrificial lamb, with the club pinning their hopes on Grenier coming good as the side's creative muse.

If Lyon's challenge is unlikely, Marseille's title tilt reigns imperiously over the realm of the improbable. Mid-table last season and listless, spirits soured by a rift between then-coach Didier Deschamps and sporting director Jose Anigo, Deschamps' summer departure for Les Bleus and the chosen replacement of Elie Baup, who had achieved little in more than a decade of management and media punditry, did not bode well.

Baup, however, set off at a canter, winning his first six games, and though - as Mathieu Valbuena admitted this week - "the content has not always been exceptional", OM are still at the races. Baup has managed to drag the best from Andre-Pierre Gignac, who might have had more than his haul of six goals had he not broken a bone in a foot in mid-October, while the January addition of Foued Kadir from Valenciennes and the news Andre and Jordan Ayew will not play in the African Nations Cup with Ghana are boons. With club president Vincent Labrune claiming the club are financially secure, they may hold onto Loic Remy this January, and if the France forward can stay fit and rediscover his form - a big-ish 'if' - then OM should finish on the podium at the least.

The six-point gap back to fourth-placed Rennes suggests, rightly, the top three are a cut above and will snap up France's Champions League qualifying places. The Bretons should fight it out for the Europa League spots with neighbours Lorient, for whom Jeremie Aliadiere has had an exceptional season so far; boring but efficient Bordeaux; an underwhelming Lille - not so much a pale shadow as a phantom of the side that won the title in 2011; a promising but inconsistent Saint-Etienne team; a surprisingly tidy Valenciennes, for whom Anthony Le Tallec has been superb; and, most eyebrow-raisingly-of-all, Claude Puel's Nice.

At the bottom, Nancy, who have just parted ways with coach Jean Fernandez, and newly-promoted Troyes - eight and six points adrift - look the most likely relegation candidates. The latter do play some good football, though, and in Yohann Thuram-Ulien have an excellent young goalkeeper. His cousin, World Cup and European Championship winner Lilian, recently revealed that, while at Juventus, Ibrahimovic replied to Fabio Capello's claim the Swede could be better than Marco van Basten by stating he had already surpassed the Dutchman. Van Basten has the edge with three Ballon d'Or awards, but though any goal scored similar to 'that' Euro '88 final volley is inevitably labelled 'Van Basten-esque', he does not have bona fide verb in his honour, nor a Ligue 1 winner's medal. Come May, Ibrahimovic should have both.

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