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A four-horse race?

It is an irony of modern football that clubs spend millions in the quest for success, while their managers spend all their time publicly writing off their own side's chances of winning anything. The men in charge in France's Ligue 1 are no exception, but there is a growing sense that someone other than Lyon could pick up the title this season. Pure hope? Or real expectation?

There is no doubt that Paris Saint-Germain are contenders, especially if you read the French press. 'Paris are candidates' stated L'Equipe after Paul Le Guen's men thumped Nantes 4-1 recently, while the sports daily's newly-born tabloid little sister Aujourd'hui Sport unimaginatively suggested, 'Paris are candidates' when their 2-1 win over Saint-Etienne last weekend - their fourth in a row - took them into second and temporarily within a tantalising point of leaders Lyon.

The squad - in time-honoured fashion - are trying to keep a lid on things. "Third will do us just nicely," said Ludovic Giuly, who swapped la dolce vita of Rome for la belle vie in Paris last summer. "To play in the Champions League come the end of the season would be exceptional."

After two seasons of mediocrity under Le Guen, a place at Europe's top table would indeed be a major achievement for what is the trimmest squad of the big four. "The question isn't whether we want to stay with Lyon and Bordeaux but - given their squads are more complete than ours - whether we can," admitted Le Guen recently, and he may find his resources at breaking point should the club continue to also make headway in the French Cup and UEFA Cup.

However, as nano-President and Mr Carla Bruni, Nicolas Sarkozy, has proved, size isn't everything. New-boys Giuly and Claude Makelele have brought much-needed stability - with the latter ganging up effectively with former Rangers misfit Jérémy Clément - while creative fulcrum Stéphane Sessegnon and top scorer Guillaume Hoarau have emerged as real finds.

The side has even proved able to shrug off the boardroom shenanigans which threatened to derail their season. An unscheduled change of club president was swiftly followed by the new man in charge having to suspend Mateja Kezman for fifteen days prior to inflicting further punishment on the ex-Stamford Bridge dug-out merchant - presumably forbidding him to add any more tattoos to his over-emblazoned forearms, or the sack - later this month.

Kezman was given the chance to prune his prize dahlias after very publicly 'dissing' the club by throwing his shirt to the ground when substituted during PSG's 3-0 League Cup semi-final defeat to Bordeaux in early February. The incident naturally caused an uproar, and masked what PSG should really be worrying about - the result.

"If Paris win the title, it'll be because Lyon and Bordeaux have f***ed up," was how silver-tongued Valenciennes boss and former PSG defender Antoine Kombouaré succinctly put it. A top-three finish is not out of reach, but - in short - PSG are not the best team out there.

Neither are Bordeaux. True enough, two matches against PSG have seen them score seven and concede none, but Laurent Blanc's men have all the consistency of runny custard, slipping six points behind Lyon - and two behind PSG - after scraping a point against a Grenoble side which scored its first goal of 2009 in last weekend's 1-1 draw.

The plodding nature of the display was due largely to the absence of Yoann Gourcuff, 'the find' of the French season. The 22-year-old is on loan from AC Milan and available for €15m to Bordeaux come the season's end, though Gourcuff has been playing so well, more attractive offers may arrive from foreign parts.

Blanc's humane decision to rest his side's muse was commendable given the Grenoble match would have been Gourcuff's fifth in two weeks, but the ex-Rennes man's introduction nine minutes from time suggests the desperation felt by Blanc as he recognised the move may well have heralded the end of his side's title tilt and underlined its dependence on the young playmaker.

After Zinédine Zidane recently suggested his former club could pip Lyon this season, striker Marouane Chamakh - who scored an unfortunate own-goal winner for Marseille to reignite OM's own challenge recently - claimed in last Saturday's L'Equipe, "We have the weapons to become champions." Judging by last weekend's performance, they would be same sort of arms Tony Blair was convinced Saddam Hussein possessed.

Bordeaux's sticky run has meant Marseille have crawled back into the title race, with Erik Gerets' side actually moving ahead of Blanc's team with victory at Monaco last Sunday. Despite Bakari Koné's delightful winner in the casino capital, OM are still five points behind Lyon, a gap Gerets - rightly - suggests is too big to bridge. "You can hardly say that we're in the running for the title," said the grizzled Belgian.

That, though, is their own fault having missed out on the chance to close on the leaders three times already this season, with their 4-2 defeat at home to PSG in October even denying them top spot. "It's true that we seem to be better when we have our backs to the wall," conceded midfielder Benoît Cheyrou - brother of ex-Liverpool man Bruno - recently. Not the sort of form that wins you championships.

Sylvain Wiltord looks a surprisingly useful addition since moving from Rennes in January, though the club's other winter arrival, Brazilian forward Brandao, is no more than a willing workhorse. Gerets is pinning all his hopes on Julien Rodriguez, recently back to fitness after a lengthy injury lay-off, doing a passable impression of a centre-half, though the ex-Rangers man's efforts should see his team finish no higher than second.

While Toulouse may upset the established order by sneaking onto the podium as they did two seasons ago, top spot remains the exclusive realm of Lyon. Though Sunday's win over Le Havre was only their first home victory in five matches, it still gave them a handy four-point cushion, and extended the hold on first place they have enjoyed since mid-September. Sidney Govou complained prior to Christmas that, "We're mediocre in every department." He was right, but everyone else in Ligue 1 has proved more mediocre still.

Claude Puel simply has superior means at his disposal, and though Karim Benzema lacks support up front after Fred's fraught departure, midfielders Ederson, Jean II Makoun and Juninho - all on the scoresheet against Le Havre - can find the net.

Despite a cavalcade of injuries in defence, Lyon's back four - marshalled by the impressive pairing of Cris and Jean-Alain Boumsong - is still the best in the land, while Hugo Lloris is a far safer option in goal than the man who is nominally in front of him in Domenech's eyes, Marseille's Steve Mandanda.

"We inspire less fear in our opponents now," said Juninho - a member of all seven title-winning teams - in a recent interview. He, like Govou, was right, but Lyon fans can rest easy that their side is still scary enough.


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