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Big Three slip out of top billing

A brief glance at the Ligue One table in recent years has largely involved a resigned Gallic shrug of the shoulders at the sight of Lyon tranquilly installed in top spot.

But after a start to the season more unpredictable than the Belarusian football pools, only a hat-trick of wins in a week has seen the six-time champions climb out of the soft underbelly and into fifth.

And they are not alone in making an escargot-esque start with fellow 'big guns' Marseille and Paris St Germain languishing in the doldrums of the lower half of the table, while perennial walk-on-part actors Valenciennes, Lorient and, particularly, the impressive Nancy get to play Brad Pitt for once at the business end.

Only Bordeaux and Monaco of Ligue One's leading lights have escaped the pandemic, but is this a changing of the guard or merely a flash-in-the-pan shorter than a Scotsman's temper?

The latter case would certainly seem to apply to Lyon, who appear to already be on the road to recovery after a tendency for self-harm in recent months that would have left even Freud scratching his head.

Trouble has been brewing under the surface at Stade Gerland throughout 2007 as they limped towards a sixth championship, and those rifts were painfully and publicly exposed during the close season.

The influential Juninho - captain of the side last season - gave up the armband in pre-season after comments to the press by team-mate Sidney Govou that there was one rule for the Brazilian and one rule for the rest.

Despite a muscular discussion between the two men refereed by new boss Alain Perrin, Juninho still nurses a Roy Keane-esque grudge over the incident, which has certainly done little to foster team spirit.

There was also the Kafka-esque saga of Sylvain Wiltord to - fortunately - keep otherwise dieting hacks gorged with column inches during the last two months.

The former Arsenal man was disciplined for having organised a 'romp' involving other as-yet-unamed members of the Lyon squad ahead of away game last season, and then got his mum to write a sick note to his employers claiming earache meant he could not go on the club's pre-season jaunt to South Korea.

Just for good measure, Wiltord was then arrested by police on arriving for the first day of pre-season training after he failed to attend court on speeding charges.

The France international's antics got him into hot water with the club's powerful Brazilian clique - headed by Juninho - and a reported ruckus with Fred almost caused the latter to quit the club, the Seleçao striker only dropping his transfer demands when Wiltord himself packed his Louis Vuitton suitcase and popped off to Rennes.

While his predecessor Gerard Houllier had the sort of trophy-stuffed CV and kudos of being an ex-France manager to keep quarrelling senior players on each other's Christmas card lists, Perrin - having only recently popped his 'big club' cherry by taking over at the end of last season - seems to be unable to keep his squad toeing the party line.

It is also no secret that Perrin has already clashed with the club's hierarchy over transfer policy, leading to media reports that dressing-room jesters have nicknamed 'Reggie' 'PPH' - 'passe pas l'hiver' or 'won't get through the winter' - with reference to the season in which the former Portsmouth boss will be requiring the services of France's career advisors.

Another bone of contention is Perrin's Eriksson-esque dedication to 4-4-2, which has seen him alter Lyon's tried-and-tested 4-3-3, forcing Juninho - the creative fulcrum of the latter formation - into a more defensive midfield role.

Perrin argued - not without justification - that the ex-Vasco de Gama man has the physical attributes necessary to fulfill the role, but Patrick Vieira in his pomp he is not, a glaringingly obvious fact which contributed to the surprise 2-1 defeat at Lorient recently.

To be fair, Lady Luck has not so much as turned her back on Perrin, but spurned his advances and run off with his best friend in terms of players picking up injuries.

The lengthy absences of first-choice keeper Gregory Coupet and this season's captain, the burly Brazilian centre-back Cris, would weaken any side.

But even the recent revival - and likelihood that Lyon will still win the title - is unlikely to stop the former Sochaux boss being afforded the chance to enjoy some 'quality time' in his garden sooner rather than later.

However, Lyon can console themselves with the fact that supposed title pretenders Marseille are - like Mark Knopfler - in dire straits.

Second last season, the 1993 European champions can say 'au revoir' to any hopes of repeating that if they don't get their act together.

Their sorry south-coast derby defeat at home to Nice last week was their second in their opening six games, and had club president Pape Diouf climbing onto his soap box to pout, 'Some players who we were counting on a lot seem to have more the qualities required by a Conference side than those needed to play for OM,' and Sunday's draw with arch-rivals Paris St Germain will barely have eased Diouf's concerns.

The rash of summer signings - which included ex-Liverpool duo Boudewijn Zenden and Djibril Cissé - may, in particular, be feeling the hot breath of their disgruntled boss on their backs after displays which have, more than likely, had scouts from Droylsden and Halifax Town making enquiries.

However, the sheer number of new recruits - five of the side which capitulated to Nice were not at the club last season - means their current difficulties can, in part, be written off as the inevitable teething problems as unfamiliar elements break the ice.

Those new faces were meant to compensate for the loss of Frank Ribery to Bayern Munich, and while they may still go some way to filling that void, Marseille's biggest problem has been the underwhelming form of Samir Nasri.

The persuasive nature of a 25 million euro cheque aside, one of the reasons OM were so willing to let Ribery go was the emergence of the 20-year-old local-born midfielder, designated Ribery's successor and, with his Algerian and Marseille roots, hailed inevitably as the 'new Zidane.'

Nasri's fearless integration into the France set-up last season seemed to give those hopes some justification, but a pre-season injury hampered his preparation, and he has looked sluggish and sadly lacking in inspiration - a major handicap for a side hoping he will provide their creative impetus.

Defeat in Paris last weekend would almost certainly have cost coach Albert Emon his job, despite last season's second place and their upcoming six-game stay in the Champions League.

The 1-1 draw in Paris means Emon's players have now given him the chance to visit Anfield, but with just one win from seven league games, Marseille's title chances - which appeared very real at the start of August - and Emon's long-term job prospects both appear to be supermodel-esque thin.

The 'Third Musketeer' of Ligue One, PSG, are struggling too, but unlike Lyon and OM, little is expected of them as Paul Le Guen rebuilds the side - and his own reputation after his Rangers fiasco - in an inhabitual climate of patience and calm.

Despite boasting just one more point than Emon and bar getting the side relegated, Le Guen knows he is unlikely to be sacked this season as club president Alain Cayzac has realised the constant managerial changes in the capital - Le Guen is the fifth coach in four years - have left the club so unstable one would have thought the San Andreas Fault and not the Boulevard Peripherique ran under the Parc des Princes.

Le Guen's summer transfer dealings have reflected his desire to rid the squad of its under-performing chaff - Bonaventure Kalou, for one - and recruit hungry, promising youngsters, such as Gregory Bourillon from Rennes and Le Havre's Didier Digard.

A former PSG midfielder himself, Le Guen has relaunched the career of his modern-day successor, Jerome Rothen, making the former Monaco man his 'meneur de jeu' - essentially 'playmaker' - while managing to persuade last season's top scorer, Pauleta, to stay at the club despite condemning the former Portugal striker to the role of luxury super-sub.

Five draws and a single victory from their opening seven games points to a solid if unspectacular side, and one which likely only be celebrating UEFA Cup qualification come the season's end.

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