Monaco push PSG off top spot
Title triumph puts an end to the domestic dominance of the wealthy capital club
French football is basking in the warm afterglow of a season where two significant things happened: the Paris Saint-Germain hegemony finally came to an end, after four seasons of the capital city club running away with the Ligue 1 title; and the performances of Monaco and Lyon, in reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League and Europa League respectively, showed that the domestic game is in far better general health than it has been for a long time.
PSG’s Europe-obsessed Qatari owners got rid of Laurent Blanc at the end of last term because they had limped out of the Champions League to a not-particularly strong Manchester City. This was despite the former national coach presiding over a domestic clean sweep. But his replacement, Unai Emery, has performed worse than Blanc.
Although he led the capital club to a double trophy haul of League Cup (4-1 against Monaco) and French Cup (1-0 against Angers), the Spaniard failed to establish PSG on the European stage.
Emery was powerless to stop Barcelona overturning a 4-0 deficit in Paris in February as PSG buckled in the return and were beaten 6-1, going out in the round of 16 in humiliating fashion, having made the quarter-finals the previous year.
Domestically, things were even worse for a club with lofty ambitions. Having
Neutrals were delighted to witness the emergence of Monaco as champions – and arguably the most exciting side in Europe
won the 2016 Ligue 1 title by a whopping 31 points, PSG could only finish second, eight points adrift of Monaco, and with nine points fewer than the 96 they achieved in the previous campaign.
Change is in the air, although Emery’s job looks safe after he received the “200 per cent” backing of club president Nasser Al Khelaifi. However, Patrick Kluivert’s role as director of football appears under threat as PSG look to supercharge their recruitment once again – following a season in which the loss of Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic was keenly felt – and former Porto man Antero Henrique was appointed sporting director at the end of the campaign.
But while PSG supporters lick their wounds, neutrals all over the country were delighted to witness the emergence of Monaco as deserved French champions and arguably the most exciting side in Europe. Under Portuguese coach Leonardo Jardim the
Principality outfit were a joy to watch all campaign and rightly finished up as champions. The statistics are impressive. Monaco earned 95 points, losing just three matches, and their hunger for goals saw them score an incredible 107 times in their 38 league games and end up with a goal difference of plus 76.
Of course, most of the headlines were made by 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe, whose prodigious talent was there for all to see. His haul of 15 league goals in just 29 matches – and none from the penalty spot – was fantastic for a youngster who has excited all of Europe. And Mbappe’s mature performances in helping Monaco to the semi-finals of the Champions League, with five goals in eight matches, has made him one of the hottest properties in Europe right now.
Monaco had many other individual success stories though, and perhaps none was more of a fairy tale than that of Radamel Falcao. The 31-year-old Colombian looked all washed up when he came back to France after a disastrous loan spell in England, with Manchester United and Chelsea. But he then confounded all his critics, scoring an impressive 30 goals in 42 matches and providing a wise old head on the pitch for a vibrant young Monaco team.
Thomas Lemar, Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoue Bakoyoko, Fabinho, Kamil Glik and Jemerson all performed admirably in an entertaining team, and naturally the big fear for Monaco is that bigger outfits will come knocking. Monaco’s best player of the season, the Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva, has already been signed by Manchester City and it would be absolutely incredible if nobody else left. Unfortunately, the likelihood is this team will now break up and we’ll never know just how good they could have become.
Nice look less likely to lose all their key assets, but no doubt envious eyes will still be cast at midfielders Jean-Michael Seri and Wylan Cyprien, as well as forward Alassane Plea, who were all key to the south-coast side’s impressive third-place finish. Without ever being as free-flowing as Monaco, Nice were nonetheless hard to beat under Swiss coach Lucien Favre, and any side that features Mario Balotelli is going to catch the eye from time to time. Despite the odd disciplinary issue, the Italian scored 15 league goals to make his signing look like good business and, overall, Balotelli seemed to enjoy life in France. If he remains at Nice next season he’ll participate in the Champions League third qualifying round.
Lyon’s fourth place means Bruno Genesio’s side qualify directly for the Europa League, although it looks highly likely that they will go into that campaign without striker Alexandre Lacazette’s impressive firepower. The 26-year-old has only ever played for one club and weighed in with another 28 league goals this season, to take his Ligue 1 tally to
PSG and Monaco may not have it all their own way when it comes to attracting the best talent to France next season
100. But the French international has dropped the biggest hint yet that it’s time to move on and Atletico Madrid seems his most likely destination.
Marseille also grabbed an automatic Europa League slot, albeit for the third qualifying round. This may not seem like much to shout about for the French giants, but given they were languishing in 12th place when Rudi Garcia took over from Franck Passi in October, they will consider it a decent return.
Garcia’s team finished the season unbeaten in their last 11 games and thrashed Saint-Etienne 4-0 on the last day. With funds now being pumped in by owner Frank McCourt, Marseille will surely be challenging next season.
Not so long ago Lille were one of the shining lights of Ligue 1 but times have been tougher lately for Les Dogues. After finishing an uninspiring 11th this term, the club have hired Marcelo Bielsa, who lasted just two days as Lazio boss in July of last year. Having been taken over by businessman Gerard Lopez in early 2017, Lille should have money to spend, so PSG and Monaco may not have it all their own way when it comes to attracting the best talent to France next season.
At the bottom, Nancy and Bastia were relegated. Not many will be sad to see the back of the latter outfit after the disgraceful scenes at their home game against Lyon in April, when opposition players were attacked by home fans, resulting in the match being abandoned.
Lorient lost over two legs in the relegation play-off and are replaced by Troyes, who finished third in Ligue 2. Strasbourg go up as Ligue 2 champions, after holding off Amiens, who are also promoted, by a single point.
Silver...Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint-Germain with the French Cup
Sale...Alexandre Lacazette looks set to leave Lyon
Applause...coach Rudi Garcia and his team acknowledge Marseille’s fans
Teamwork...Mario Balotelli helps Nice to clear a corner
Restrained...Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes is held back by Bastia security staff