‘Ligue 1’

Compulsive risk-taker Verratti relegates Cabaye to sideshow

Marco VERRATTINewcastle United fans, look away now. If losing Yohan Cabaye was painful, it probably won’t help to learn that he’s not even getting in the Paris Saint-Germain team at the moment.

As one of the stars of Lille’s 2010-11 double-winning team and a core member of the France side that engineered November’s famous comeback against Ukraine in World Cup qualifying, Cabaye is not short of admirers in his home country, but he is not playing for PSG for the simple reason that he is not Marco Verratti.

Since swapping the Bigg Market for the Champs Elysées in January, Cabaye has made only four starts. Instead, he is becoming the player that Laurent Blanc turns to when Verratti needs a breather, starting in the second leg of the Champions League last 16 encounter with Bayer Leverkusen (after PSG had put the tie to bed with a 4-0 victory in the first leg) and coming into the team for Friday’s 1-0 win at Nice, when Verratti was rested ahead of this week’s meeting with Chelsea.

French pundits believe that PSG’s neatly balanced midfield trio of Verratti, Thiago Motta and Blaise Matuidi will give them the edge in their quarter-final against Chelsea, and if Motta supplies the brains and Matuidi the lungs in that triumvirate, Verratti is the wildly and erratically pumping heart.

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Tactics: Ligue 1’s leading lights find diamonds in the rough

James RodriguezParis Saint-Germain and Monaco may have stockpiled all the money in Ligue 1, but the playing fields of the French top flight have been awash with diamonds this season.

Over the past few months, a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond – known as a milieu en losange in France – has become the must-have tactical system for the league’s leading teams, with Lille, Monaco and Lyon successively enjoying improved fortunes after adopting the tactic and Marseille potentially poised to follow suit.

Lille were the pioneers, with coach René Girard installing the system within weeks of his arrival from Montpellier during the summer. Having initially declared an intention to persist with the 4-3-3 formation favoured by his predecessor, Rudi Garcia, he jettisoned the tactic after only 45 minutes of the club’s first friendly match, a 3-2 win over Dijon in July.

The system he introduced was designed to get the best out of Marvin Martin, who operates in the number 10 role ahead of a three-man midfield. Once seen as France’s answer to Xavi, he endured a disappointing debut season after signing from Sochaux but has spoken positively of the “freedom” afforded him in the new system. It is a set-up with which the 26-year-old is familiar, having come to prominence at Sochaux by supplying the bullets for Brown Ideye and Modibo Maiga as the club from eastern France recorded a surprise fifth-place finish under Francis Gillot in 2011.

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French football quotes of the year 2013

Zlatan IbrahimovicFrom post-match brawls and Twitter spats to weather vanes, broken televisions and Justin Bieber, Football Further proudly presents its seasonal compilation of the year’s best French football quotes.

Argy-bargy

“People have a good image of me. It’s not these tramps who are going to tarnish my image. They should stop lying to the French people. It annoys me that people talk about ‘your image’. My image is great in France. When I’m abroad, I don’t even talk about it. But in France it’s just these people, these parasites.”
Patrice Evra on his friends in the media

“I go to talk to the referee. At that moment, the delegate blocks me and pushes me towards the referee. As a result, I touch the referee with my back. It happened exactly like that. I didn’t push the referee.”
Leonardo‘s not entirely accurate account of his encounter with referee Alexandre Costa after Paris Saint-Germain’s 1-1 draw with Valenciennes in May. It ultimately costs him a 14-month suspension, effectively forcing him out of French football

“This year we’ve lost lots of players, as always, but we’ve lost something very important: the pillars of Valencia, players like [Roberto] Soldado, David Albelda or Tino Costa who talk in the changing room. Now there are lots of boot-lickers who don’t say things to your face. That’s why things aren’t going well between me and Đukić.”
Adil Rami explains why his relationship with Valencia coach Miroslav Đukić has broken down. And is promptly frozen out of the squad

“There was an altercation that I wasn’t involved in. My goalkeeping coach, Fabrice Grange, was surrounded by a load of people who were pushing him. Jean-Michel Aulas arrived – I don’t know why. All I did was push him back. He says that I hit him in the back, which is scandalous. If I’d done that, he wouldn’t have been able to do an interview with Canal+ three minutes later.”
– Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier rejects an accusation from Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas that he punched him during a tunnel scuffle after a heated derby du Rhône

“And what’s the other one called, Screwdriver? Rolland Screwdriver. All he does is talk.”
Evra again, unwittingly rechristening manager/pundit Rolland Courbis ‘Rolland Tournevis’

Les Bleus

“After the Euro, the media attention was very difficult to digest. I’d say that it ruined my season a bit. Everyone talked to me about it. I handled the situation badly, I accept that. I should have given a mea culpa. I shut myself off and, with hindsight, I realise that I was wrong.”
Samri Nasri reflects on Euro 2012

“If I had to do everything again, if I had the possibility to relive exactly the same life, I’d do it, I’d want the same one. I’d do everything the same. It’s beautiful, all the same. I’m happy with what I’ve experienced up to now.”
Éric Abidal on his battle with liver problems

“Above my mantelpiece, in the living room. My wife’s prepared everything.”
– Asked where he would put the Ballon d’Or trophy if he won it, Franck Ribéry reveals that he’s barely given it any thought at all

“When the coach told me I was playing, I said: ‘We’re going to Brazil.’ It doesn’t matter how. If I’d had to score with my hand, the ball would have been in the back of the net.”
Mamadou Sakho, who scores two goals as France overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Ukraine to book their place at next year’s World Cup

“I’d never seen such an atmosphere at the Stade de France. It was a beautiful moment to experience, all those people behind us, the flags, the chants. From the hotel to the stadium we felt that force pushing us.”
– Captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris

“RESPECT.”
– So often the scourge of the national team, L’Équipe takes its cue from Ali G with a simple one-word headline the day after the match

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Feature: Sakho in search of lost time at Liverpool

“Sporting the captain’s armband for Paris Saint-Germain, Sakho conceded a penalty with a rash sliding challenge on an opposition forward in the 71st minute of a French Cup tie at Lorient’s Stade du Moustoir. Worse, PSG were playing Saint-Colomban Locminé, an amateur team from the French fifth tier, who promptly equalised from the resulting penalty. Worse still, Sakho was making his first appearance under new coach Carlo Ancelotti, who had succeeded Antoine Kombouaré just 10 days earlier.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on why things fell apart for Mamadou Sakho at Paris Saint-Germain, and you can read it – should you wish – here.

Paris Saint-Germain emerge from mid-summer limbo

Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marco Verratti, Javier Pastore, Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lucas Moura and Salvatore Sirigu celebrate Paris Saint-Germain's 2-1 victory over Bordeaux in the Trophee des ChampionsHaving waited 19 years and 13 days to reacquaint themselves with the rarefied air at the summit of French football, Paris Saint-Germain were rather dismayed to see their Ligue 1 title celebrations unravel into a sorry mess in the space of barely a week.

Twenty-four hours after a 1-0 win at Lyon on May 12 gave PSG their first title since 1994, supporters clashed with riot police at Paris’ Place du Trocadéro (scene of Zlatan Ibrahimović’s glitzy unveiling the previous summer) and plans for a triumphant trophy presentation at the Hôtel de Ville were shelved. PSG were quick to condemn the “few hundred troublemakers” responsible for the violence, but the title euphoria dissipated further as Carlo Ancelotti abruptly announced his desire to leave the club for Real Madrid.

Sporting director Leonardo then had his suspension for shoving referee Alexandre Castro increased from nine to 13 months, while an initial lack of transfer activity was compounded by a glut of headline-grabbing arrivals at newly promoted Monaco, as well as media reports linking Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva with moves away from Parc des Princes.

The sense of flux was heightened by the unexpected string of rejections that PSG had to wade through before finally appointing a successor to Ancelotti. No fewer than six coaches – José Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, Fabio Capello, Guus Hiddink, André Villas-Boas and Frank Rijkaard – were reported to have rebuffed the French champions’ advances, before former France coach Laurent Blanc eventually took the plunge following a year out of the game.

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French football quotes of the year 2012

Samir NasriFrom AVB to Zlatan, Newcastle to Donetsk, Football Further is proud to present its third annual compilation of the year’s best French football quotes.

Cross-Channel relations

“Yesterday, I make one tackle and all everybody speak about is this tackle. Nobody speaks about the 50-yard pass that kills [Florent] Balmont and causes a red card for ‘im.”
– Replete with some elaborate eyebrow-waggling and a healthy dose of Gallic shrugging, Joey Barton‘s attempts to ingratiate himself with the Marseille media become an instant YouTube classic

“Eden Hazard’s English is catastrophic. I asked him: ‘Are you happy with your transfer?’ He said: ‘I don’t understand!'”
Romelu Lukaku on his new Chelsea team-mate

“It was the feeling I had with the coach. He said he trusted me, but he didn’t let me play. He said I was too young. He said: ‘Your time will come.’ It didn’t come. Even though he’s had a 25-year career and despite the fact he’s the boss, my objective was to play … I’m impatient. When I want something, I’ll do anything to get it.”
Paul Pogba crosses Sir Alex Ferguson, and lives to tell the tale

“The only thing I miss is in the changing room. I can’t understand all the jokes and it’s frustrating. French is more difficult than I thought. I’m trying to take my lessons very seriously. I listen to them for at least half an hour each day. The other day I watched a film in French, with English subtitles. It was Ne le dis à personne [‘Tell No One’], which was a great film. I’m going to do it again.”
Joe Cole may have left Lille with a sub-GCSE level of French, but he is now a leading authority on the films of Guillaume Canet

“I could become a doctor!”
Abou Diaby tries to put a positive spin on all the medical vocabulary he has acquired during his time in and out of the Arsenal treatment room

Euro 2012

“I accept that you can ask questions about his sporting performances … But when I hear that he could be dangerous for the concept of the group, I feel like we’re trying to bring a wolf into the sheep pen. He’s been a part of the group since the start. He dropped out due to injury and then loss of form. Don’t make him out to be a wolf, because he isn’t one.”
Laurent Blanc tells the media not to cry wolf after handing Yoann Gourcuff a place in his preliminary squad

“Shut your face! Shut your face!”
Samir Nasri celebrates his goal in the opening game with England by thanking the gentlemen of the French press for their support

“There was a bit of a slanging match in the changing room.”
Olivier Giroud lets the cat out of the bag about the row that erupted after France’s shock 2-0 loss to Sweden

“Go fuck yourself! Go fuck your mother, you son of a bitch! There, now you can write that I’m badly brought up.”
– Such a nice boy, that Samir Nasri – lashing out at a journalist following Les Bleus‘ quarter-final elimination by Spain

“We’ve told them to be vigilant and not to say anything that could hurt the group.”
– French Football Federation press officer Philippe Tournon, prior to the tournament, on the instructions given to France’s players about how to handle the media

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Pitchside Europe: Marseille resistance keeps things interesting

“As in all the great rivalries, much of Marseille’s sense of identity is derived from their fierce opposition to everything PSG, and the events of the last year or so have only served to make the distinction between the clubs clearer. If PSG are the nouveau riche aristocrats, OM have become the sooty-faced street urchins, scrapping and scheming for everything they can get. In André-Pierre Gignac, the striker no-one wanted, who matched [Zlatan] Ibrahimović’s brace at Stade Vélodrome, they have a fittingly unglamorous figurehead for their resistance to the billionaires from Paris.”

My latest Pitchside Europe column for Eurosport, on how Marseille exposed the shortcomings in Paris Saint-Germain’s star-studded squad, can be read here.

Report: Gignac matches Ibra as Marseille hold PSG

“PARIS — André-Pierre Gignac matched Zlatan Ibrahimović goal for goal to earn Marseille a 2-2 draw at home to Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday and keep OM three points clear of their arch rivals at the top of Ligue 1.”

My AFP match report on how André-Pierre Gignac and Zlatan Ibrahimović upstaged Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (OK, nearly upstaged) in Sunday’s night Classique at Stade Vélodrome can be read here.

Pitchside Europe: Streamlined Lyon roll with the punches

“A bloated payroll, allied to the failure to qualify for the Champions League and diminishing income from television rights, meant that Lyon had no choice but to slash their wage bill in the summer. [Jean-Michel] Aulas sounded the alarm, declaring that it was time for the club’s “pharaohs” and “changing-room dinosaurs” to move on, and by the time the transfer window closed earlier this month, Hugo Lloris, Aly Cissokho, Kim Källström, Ederson, John Mensah and club captain Cris — among others — had all departed.”

This week’s Pitchside Europe blog, on how Lyon have made a steady start to the season despite a summer of Ligue 1 upheaval, can be read here.

Pitchside Europe: Lille slow and steady as PSG rumble by

“There are 1,001 ways to highlight the gulf in resources between PSG and their domestic rivals, but the comparison with Lille is of particular interest because the 2011 champions were expected to mount the most enduring challenge to [Carlo] Ancelotti’s men this season. Montpellier will struggle to return to last season’s heights and while Lyon and Marseille have made promising starts, both clubs are in transition and have thin squads that will feel the pinch of injuries and suspensions keenly. Lille, though, appear to be on the up. Their brand new 50,000-seater stadium has helped them to attract high-quality players such as [Salomon] Kalou and Marvin Martin, while qualification for the Champions League group phase is expected to swell the club’s carefully tended coffers by around £16 million.”

This week’s Pitchside Europe blog for Eurosport, on why Lille look like the most serious challengers to Paris Saint-Germain this season, can be read here.

Pitchside Europe: ‘Big Mac’ Gignac bites back

“[Gignac] has emerged as the unlikely inspiration behind Marseille’s revival under new coach Elie Baup. His £250,000-a-month salary makes him OM’s most handsomely remunerated player, but where he was once an emblem of the club’s ill-considered excesses, he has come to symbolise their hopes of renewal. The cost of renovating the Vélodrome and the drop in earnings caused by last season’s 10th-place finish means that Marseille have been able to sign just one player — 23-year-old forward Florian Raspentino, from Nantes — and their chances of success this season will depend on their thin squad digging deep and following Gignac’s example.”

This  season I will be writing exclusively about Ligue 1 for Eurosport Yahoo!’s Pitchside Europe blog, and you can read my piece on André-Pierre Gignac’s revival with Marseille here.

Related link: Nerves fray as PSG remain grounded

Report: PSG, Montpellier remain grounded in Ligue 1

“PARIS — Last season’s Ligue 1 top two, Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain, are still awaiting their first wins this term after adverse results on Sunday left both teams in the bottom half of the table.”

My AFP report on the third weekend of the Ligue 1 season, which ended with Marseille on top of the pile after yet more early-season woe for Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain, can be read here.

Pitchside Europe: European Team of the Season

“Zlatan Ibrahimović enjoyed his most prolific season to date with Milan, Bayern Munich’s Mario Gómez plundered goals with remarkable consistency, and Falcao shot Atletico Madrid to Europa League glory, but Huntelaar outscored them all. The Dutchman’s sparkling partnership with Raúl fired Schalke to Champions League qualification and with 29 goals, he trailed only Messi, Ronaldo and Robin van Persie in the running for the European Golden Shoe.”

Pitchside Europe signed off for the 2011-2012 campaign by selecting a team of the season from players plying their trade outside the English Premier League. You can see the team (and then vent your spleen about my preposterous selections) here.

Report: Montpellier win maiden title on chaotic final day

“PARIS — Montpellier claimed the first French league title in their history after winning 2-1 at Auxerre on an extraordinary final day of the season on Sunday, after a game twice delayed due to protests by the home fans.”

My AFP report on the final day of the Ligue 1 season, which saw Dijon and Caen relegated, while Bordeaux claimed the final Europa League berth, can be read here.

Floundering Gourcuff handed unlikely France reprieve

From the outside, the striking thing was the fact that it was headline news at all. Gourcuff named in France squad. Yoann Gourcuff, heir apparent to Zinedine Zidane, darling of Bordeaux’s 2009 title-winning side, was this week selected in Laurent Blanc’s preliminary squad for Euro 2012. And it was the biggest story in town.

Anticipation of the squad announcement had centred on whether or not Gourcuff would get the call, at the end of a season in which injuries and poor form have restricted him to just 13 league appearances for Lyon, culminating in a sending-off for violent conduct against Ajaccio on Sunday. “It’s not anecdotal,” said Blanc of the red card, which Gourcuff received for an off-the-ball altercation with Ajaccio’s Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. “It proves that the boy isn’t in top form, both physically and mentally.”

Gourcuff’s inclusion in the 26-man squad therefore came as something of a surprise, but how has a player for whom such a bright future was predicted fallen so far?

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