Seven months ago, Marseille were European finalists, as they lost to Atletico Madrid in the Europa League showpiece game in Lyon. L’OM’s journey in Europe’s secondary competition had seen them take out both Red Bull Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg, and if anything could be read into those victories, it was like they gave the Red Bull-owned duo proof of how to translate financial outlay to on-pitch progress.
Everything, from owner Frank McCourt’s investments, the managerial appointment of Rudi Garcia to the signings on the pitch, looked to be reaping fruit, and while that loss to Atletico denied them their principal aim of getting back into the Champions League, progress looked irrefutable.
They had taken a significant step towards reclaiming a place in the European table. Perhaps the Marseille of recent past, that knocked Inter Milan out of the Champions League, that once did the double over then German champions Borussia Dortmund, that held their own against Manchester United, was about to resurface.
That was just seven months ago. Yet with the way Marseille have seemingly sunk, you’d think their obvious signs of progress were years back. Marseille finished fourth last season, this time they’re currently two places and only three points from that position, yet that spot, a drop-down from last season, is, in context of this season, a feat they have managed in spite of themselves. The summer signings have offered next-to-nothing on the pitch, principally Duje Caleta-Car, Nemanja Radonjic and Kevin Strootman, and their outlay has them tethering towards financial peril.
The performances have looked anything but positive; in games against Lyon and Paris St. Germain this season, teams they gave a run for their money last term, and they should at least start matching on the domestic front, Garcia’s side have looked very much second-best, the key players who were so pivotal last season have faltered this season, and in Europe, where they aim to be something of a force again, Marseille finished bottom of their Europa League group with a point, as they looked miles off Lazio and Eintracht Frankfurt.
As if to rub salts into their wounds, Marseille lost to fourth-tier side Andrezieux in the Coupe de France, a two-nil defeat to a team with a ground so low in capacity that cup game had to be played at St. Etienne’s Geoffroy-Guichard. That just about summed up their season, summed up how their plan under McCourt, which began two years ago, looks to be heading south. It says much about their recent fortunes that they resume Ligue 1 duties this weekend at home to second-bottom Monaco, yet only just about look favourites.
But Marseille are probably the only side in the top half who’d expect to be doing much better than they are. Les Olympiques are a point behind the final four sides that make up the top 10, each of whom have different stories. For seventh-placed Strasbourg, it’s quite a surprise to see Le Racing so high up the table, Thierry Laurey’s Alsace-based side only in their second successive top-flight season, having gained promotion in 2017.
But, in terms of surprise stories, they have nothing on Reims, David Guion’s side one of the two newly-promoted sides who flying high this season, as they lie in ninth place, while fellow new boys Nimes are only three points behind in 11th place.
In eighth and tenth, respectively, are Rennes and Nice, who have recovered from less than steady starts. Rennes recently dismissed manager Sabri Lamouchi after form nosedived, but their fortunes have taken a turn for the better since the appointment of Julien Stephan, and thanks to the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa and Ismaila Sarr, have a shot at European qualification. Nice, meanwhile, were all change in the summer, Patrick Vieira replacing Julien Favre as manager, while Alassane Plea, Maxime Le Marchand and Jean-Michel Seri all departed. That Vieira has them in the top half is impressive, especially considering that star striker Mario Balotelli is yet to score this season.
But the biggest surprise so far is surely Michel Der Zakarian’s Montpellier, who are in fourth spot, four points behind second-placed Lille, having played two games less (as a result to the gilet jaunes protests). Lyon are the side between Montpellier and Lille, Les Gones still inconsistent and enter this month with the prospect of losing key players to bigger clubs, but all three are unsurprisingly miles behind leaders PSG, who are 13 points ahead of Lille, with two games in hand.
Almost expectedly, there is no race at the very top, but it’s not the same at the bottom. Monaco still lie bottom bar one, three points from the relegation play-off place. Thierry Henry’s side have suffered massive injuries to key personnel, and have been left relying on teenagers for a while, hence the purchase of 36-year-old defender Naldo this month, with 32-year-old Cesc Fabregas expected to join from Chelsea. Guingamp lie at the foot of the table, the town club’s fortunes have nosedived this season, something which cost Antoine Kombaoure his job, the former PSG man having been replaced by Jocelyn Gourvennec.
There’s typically plenty to play for as Ligue 1 returns, if not at the top, then pretty much everywhere else.