A new year begins in Ligue 1 with the top of the table looking somewhat unfamiliar.
As 2020 gives way to 2021, it is Lyon who are leading the way in France’s top flight, having enjoyed a fine run of form in the early winter. Hot on their heels are Lille, while habitual champions Paris Saint-Germain find themselves third, a point off the pace.
December was indeed a month that saw the title race tighten up rather than fall into the clutches of the Parisians, who would have enjoyed a commanding position at the summit had they managed to overcome Lyon and Lille.
In the event, Thomas Tuchel’s admittedly injury-hit side were only able to muster a point from those fixtures – beaten 1-0 at home to Lyon and held scoreless in Lille.
PSG had hamstrung themselves to some extent due to their poor early Champions League results, forcing them to give their all in that competition to the last. Successive wins over RB Leipzig, Manchester United and Basaksehir may have allowed them to qualify as group winners, but the energy expelled cost them domestically.
Ultimately, it would cost Tuchel his job. On December 23, he was told he was being relieved of his duties, and while official confirmation did not arrive until later, it came as no surprise when Mauricio Pochettino swooped in to take his place on an 18-month deal with the option of a further year.
The former Tottenham boss will have to hit the ground running in order to maintain PSG’s domestic dominance.
Lyon are a side with their focus fixed on league success. Champions League semi-finalists in 2019-20, they have been aided by their lack of European football this time around, particularly during a December that their leading rivals found hectic.
They picked up 13 points from 15 and finished the year as the league’s form team. Moreover, they are set to keep their key performers in a bid to optimise their title chances. That means Houssem Aouar and Memphis Depay are likely to stay put unless there are extravagant bids.
PSG may be the team to beat, but Lyon will not go away easily.
Meanwhile, Lille are another variable in the mix. Christophe Galtier’s side, however, was the subject of a takeover in December, and while they have insisted there is no need to sell, their squad numbers are set to be reduced in January.
Presently, LOSC have a well-balanced squad that is capable of solving many different problems and has posted excellent form this term, losing only two games – one of which was a Europa League match against Celtic that they treated as a half-dead rubber.
Their gutsy 3-2 win over Montpellier immediately before Christmas, shows they are intent on playing a role.
Marseille, with two games in hand but eight points back, are less likely to challenge, though with Andre Villas-Boas’ small squad no longer stretched by a Champions League competition that was a level too good for them, they can hope to make the top three.
Rennes, meanwhile, also enjoyed a notable uptick in form after their European commitments were over, winning four straight, and will also challenge for European football.
At the other end of the standings, Strasbourg and Reims have shown belated signs of rumbling into better form. Both have moved out of the relegation zone thanks to good December results.
Conversely, the problems suffered by the likes of Nimes and Lorient have only increased, though in the case of the form club, injury issues have hampered any recovery effort.
Nantes, too, are a side hovering just above trouble. Raymond Domenech, out of the game since coaching France catastrophically at the 2010 World Cup, has taken charge from Christian Gourcuff there. The response of the fans? To play circus music loudly during his first training session in protest at the board.
Meanwhile, December also saw the end of Patrick Vieira’s disappointing reign in Nice. He left the club in the middle of the standings, significantly below where their squad should be. Adrian Ursea, his assistant, appears to be a stop-gap replacement until the season’s end.
January, meanwhile, promises to be a busy month, with each side playing at least five games kicking off with a midweek round on January 6 that will notably see Pochettino travel to Saint-Etienne for his first match in charge of PSG.