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Dec 15, 2009

Bore-deaux on course for Ligue 1 title

"One-nil to Les Girondins" or "Boring, boring Bordeaux" are not chants you are likely to hear at Ligue 1 grounds in the near future. French football fans are not much given to imaginative singing, much less serenading their teams in the language of the rosbifs - the French pronunciation of 'roast beefs' as the English are affectionately known on this side of the Channel Tunnel - but it does seem that Laurent Blanc's side are going to 'do an Arsenal' this season.

Ligue 1 may have been slumber-inducingly predictable when Lyon eased to seven consecutive titles, but at least they played attractive football at times. Laurent Blanc's side look as if they could exercise an equally python-esque grip on top spot this season without the added value of producing a palatable spectacle. Blanc was recently dubbed 'the new Wenger' by an English football magazine - 'George Graham Mark II' would perhaps have been more appropriate.

Sunday night's 1-0 win at Lyon - thanks to Marouane Chamakh's late header - gave Les Girondins a four-point cushion over Montpellier at the top of the table, though the second-placed side do have a game in hand. However, with the newly-promoted club likely to 'do a Hull' in the second half of the season, and Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain still well short of being able to sustain a title challenge, it is the eight points now separating Bordeaux from ninth-placed Lyon that are perhaps more significant.

The game itself was 90 minutes of the dreariest fare served up outside of a school canteen. That, though, has been the leitmotif of Bordeaux's success over the last two seasons. 'Well-organised' and 'solid' are the two most commonly used adjectives to describe the side Blanc has built, the Bordeaux boss eschewing the more flamboyant, socks-rolled-down elegance that characterised his playing career.

Whatever Manchester United fans may think of Blanc - they witnessed a great defender, whose speed was never his strongest asset, in the twilight of his career in the most pace-oriented league in the world - he was a world-class centre-back, and it is the more stoic qualities of that position and the lessons he undoubtedly learned from his spells in Italy that he has applied with great success. Pretty it is not, but effective it certainly is.

His side have conceded just ten goals this season in 16 league games - three less than the next best - which is the fruit of not only having a solid back four, but a granite-like XI. Untried youngster Ludovic Sané stepped in at centre-half at Lyon for his league debut when Michaël Ciani suffered a back spasm in the warm-up, and the team still looked as formidable a bloc as ever.

Admittedly, Lyon, who also fielded just a single striker, Lisandro Lopez, at kick-off, were embarrassingly powder-puff, but Bordeaux live up to the old adage of 'defending as a team'. It is not for nothing they finished the Champions League group stage having conceded just two goals, the best record in the competition.

If they were a basketball team, 'full court press' would adequately sum up their game-plan, with the industrious Chamakh and midfielders Jaroslav Plasil and Wendel the front line of a strategy which screams 'defence is the best form of defence'. Add the destructive athleticism of Alou Diarra, who is finally beginning to show just why Bayern Munich and Liverpool had him on their books early in his career, and the industrious and occasionally inspirational Brazilian Fernando, and you have a midfield in which only Yoann Gourcuff is given license to roam forward with something approaching abandon.

Like Wenger and Graham, Blanc has also recognised the importance of an excellent goalkeeper, and in Cédric Carrasso, he has one. The designated successor to Fabien Barthez after the 'Divine Bald One's' second spell at Marseille, serious knee injuries saw Carrasso's place taken by then second-string stopper Steve Mandanda. Exile to Toulouse followed, where Carrasso's saves - and André-Pierre Gignac's goals - hoisted the south-west club into fourth place at the end of last season.

With Ulrich Ramé ageing, Blanc moved to give Carrasso the platform from which he should step up to earn himself a regular place in the national side, albeit likely behind Lyon's Hugo Lloris and Mandanda.

The question remains: how do Bordeaux actually win games? The answer is simple - an extraordinary ability to capitalise on set-pieces. Seven of their nine goals in the Champions League came from free-kicks or corners, and they boast a similarly ruthless efficiency in Ligue 1, despite - as Gourcuff claimed recently - "not working on them all that much."

"We have good dead-ball takers, and there's commitment and determination in front of goal," explained Plasil recently. "We want to score goals from set-piece situations. We know that in modern football, it's the small details that count. It's the free-kicks and corners that can decide games."

It is the contrast between this season's successful foray into Europe - in which both Bayern Munich and Juventus were beaten - and the poor showing they put on in the Champions League last season, starting with a 4-0 drubbing at Chelsea, that is evidence of how the promising plonk of 2008-09 has matured into a vintage come 2009-10.

Gourcuff has spoken of the psychological boost picking up the Ligue 1 trophy last May had on the whole club, and the fact that Ciani, Carrasso and Plasil are the only new faces in the first-team squad suggests the improvement has largely been made in the head.

"Those Lyon players with a decent memory must have had the impression of seeing themselves from three or four seasons ago," L'Equipe suggested following Bordeaux's win at Stade Gerland. "Not in terms of the football played, but in the attitude, in the certainty that a chance will come and that it'll be the right one; the manner of letting an opponent wear themselves out, and - having slyly checked their fuel gauge is nearly at empty - delivering the coûp de grace."

With Claude Puel struggling to exploit the potential in his Lyon squad, which remains - on paper - more complete and stronger than Bordeaux's, perhaps the biggest challenge to the champions will come from their antithesis, Puel's ex-employers Lille.

Their 4-0 win over Monaco last weekend was their fourth successive win and - neatly - completed a quartet of league matches in which they had scored four times. They are currently in third place, six points behind the leaders having played a game more. Lille actually beat Bordeaux in early November, and head to the Stade Chaban-Delmas in mid-March for a game which could a title decider. Just don't expect it to be exciting.

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