“In order to be shit in the Champions League, you have to at least qualify for the Champions League,” said Marseille coach André Villas-Boas. “We did it and we are being shit.” After a run of three straight defeats without scoring a goal, the Portuguese coach has a point. However, that damning assessment of his team could also be applied to much of French football of late.
Marseille were not the only Ligue 1 team to taste defeat last week. Four of the five French clubs in Europe were beaten. PSG and Rennes also lost in the Champions League, and Nice lost in the Europa League. Lille were the only exceptions; they dismantled Milan 3-0 at San Siro to go top of their Europa League group.
French clubs have been involved in nine Champions League games so far this campaign, losing seven of them and picking up just one draw (Rennes at home to Krasnodar) and one win (PSG away to Istanbul Basaksehir). Midway through the group stage, Marseille and Rennes are bottom of their groups, while PSG are third in theirs behind Manchester United and RB Leipzig. As things stand, they would all be knocked out.
Marseille had missed out on the Champions League for the last six seasons, so this was meant to be a landmark moment for the 1993 champions. However, disaster has ensued. They were at least competitive in their 1-0 defeat at Olympiakos and there is little shame in losing to Manchester City, but their 3-0 defeat at Porto – epitomised by Dimitri Payet ballooning an early penalty into the night sky – meant Marseille finished the week as the only club yet to score in the group stage. They have now lost their last 12 matches in the Champions League.
Marseille are far from alone. Ignoring PSG and Lyon, French clubs are on a run of 26 games without a win in the Champions League. Lille managed just two points in six games last season and Monaco picked up just one point in the group stage the year before.
Domestically, major French clubs are also unable to compete. Although the bottom 19 teams in Ligue 1 are remarkably evenly matched, full of thrilling young players and able to producing enthralling encounters – Lens and Reims shared eight goals this weekend, for example – PSG remain omnipotent. Despite weariness, injuries and relentless travel for the Champions League and international fixtures, the champions are still dominant.
Rennes went to the Parc des Princes on Saturday in good form and hoping to give the champions a real challenge. Yet, despite the absence of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar, Mauro Icardi and Marco Verratti, PSG ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. When PSG lost their first two games of the season in September, football fans in France started dreaming about a title race. Since then Thomas Tuchel’s side have won eight league games in a row to go five points clear at the top of the table.
This season has been chaotic and unpredictable in other leagues. Real Sociedad, Villarreal and Atlético Madrid are the top three in La Liga; Southampton, Leicester and Tottenham all topped the Premier League at some point this weekend; and Sassuolo are second behind Milan in Serie A. But it is business as usual in Ligue 1 – and, admittedly, the Bundesliga.
This season was meant to be a turning point for Ligue 1. The league signed a TV deal with Mediapro last year that would bring in €1.15bn for each of the next four years. It was the second biggest domestic TV rights deal in Europe and the clubs – many of whom are already intelligently run despite their thin resources – hoped they would now have enough money to not only develop players and hold on to them but also to bring in new signings.
However, it looks as if clubs may have to settle for less money than they expected. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Spanish broadcaster failed to pay their October instalment and have sought to renegotiate the deal, forcing the league to take out an emergency bank loan to keep clubs afloat. An agreement has not yet been reached, with any potential replacement broadcaster likely to be unwilling or unable to match the original price.
Stopping last season early and playing games without crowds had already damaged finances. If Mediapro’s broadcast deal disappears, a number of clubs could go bust. Villas-Boas summed up the Marseille’s predicament neatly last week, when he said: “If Marseille had money you would have Guardiola and his possession game, but sadly for you it is André Villas-Boas and his tactical decisions.”
Over the last few seasons – as Lyon and PSG underlined in the Champions League earlier this year – Ligue 1 has often appeared to be on the cusp of something truly great. The components are all there: a group of historic clubs, the most exciting talent pool in world football, evenly matched and varied teams, ferocious rivalries, colourful support, many a well-run outfit and the promise of a mammoth TV deal. Not to mention the fact that France are current world champions. Nevertheless, that promise has failed to truly coalesce consistently.
As the Mediapro debacle and the chaotic handling of Ligue 1’s stoppage in March underlines, much of the blame can be apportioned to the authorities and decision-makers rather than the football clubs themselves. Every football club – and every business for that matter – has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, yet the damage seems likely to be worse in France. Ligue 1 may end 2020 without a principal domestic broadcaster and with many of its biggest clubs in significant financial strife, unable to compete at home or abroad.
It’s a situation largely of the league’s own making and has a lot in common with Marseille’s form in the Champions League: well and truly merde.
Ligue 1 results
Ligue 1 results
Brest 3-2 Lille
Lorient 0-2 Nantes
Metz 1-1 Dijon
Nîmes 1-5 Angers
Lens 4-4 Reims
Nice 1-2 Monaco
Lyon 2-1 St Etienne
Bordeaux 0-2 Montpellier
PSG 3-0 Rennes
Strasbourg 0-1 Marseille
Ligue 1 talking points
• Stéphane Jobard has become the first Ligue 1 manager to lose his job this season. With Dijon bottom of the league as the only winless side in the division, it had perhaps been coming. Sporting director Peguy Luyindula followed Jobard out of the club after some haphazard recruitment this summer. The incoming boss faces a tough task to keep them up. Former Nîmes manager Bernard Blaquart has reportedly already turned the club down.
• Sunday was derby day in Ligue 1. Monaco won 2-1 at their Côte d’Azur rivals Nice before Lyon and Saint-Étienne met in the fiercest local rivalry in France (and perhaps Europe). Despite the absence of fans at Parc OL, the two teams served up an intense encounter. Anthony Lopes was caught out at his near post by Denis Bouanga, who scored a deserved opener for Saint-Étienne, giving them hopes of ending a run of five defeats in Ligue 1. However, Zimbabwean striker Tino Kadewere came off the bench, replacing an ineffective Moussa Dembélé, and won the Rhône-Alpes derby for Lyon. “I had a dream that I would score two goals in the derby,” he said before the game. He did just that. He equalised with a cute near-post flick before scoring a sliding winner that beat Jessy Moulin at his near post, bizarrely mirroring Lopes’ error in the first half. Bouanga had the chance to equalise for Lyon from the penalty spot but dragged his shot wide. After a promising start, Claude Puel’s side are in freefall.