Ligue 1 Focus – Underachievers please try harder

The winter break appears to have done some good for Ligue 1’s biggest underachievers. Marseille and Lyon, last season’s second and third best teams according to the final Ligue 1 standings, look as if they have finally awoken after some serious pre-Christmas blues.

Les Phoceens are undefeated in the New Year and still in the running in all three domestic competitions. The team from the south coast will be looking take heart from their recent performances to make a serious attempt at the Ligue 1 title in the second half of the season. Central defender Souleymane Diawara has this week expressed his delight at the clubs upturn in fortunes. Diawara said: “I think that any patch of good form, any win, does you good psychologically.We’re on track in 2010, and mentally, this holds us in very good stead for the rest of the season.”

Didier Deschamps’ side have progressed well in the domestic cup competitions, most recently defeating rivals Lille 2-1 in the quarter-finals of the League Cup. Coupled with a hard fought draw at the Stade Chaban-Delmas with champions Bordeaux, Marseille are a side on the up and on the way to realising their true potential with influential players hitting form at the right time. The return of fit-again captain Mamadou Niang is most welcomed for the confidence of the side, with fringe players Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Valbuena proving their worth, after previously appearing to be not part of the manager’s plans. Diawara added: “The title is still up for grabs and it’s up to us to show that anything is still possible. There are still plenty of games to play, we have to believe in ourselves.” The team’s ability to battle through adversity will be tested this coming weekend when Marseille take on second placed Montpellier, with an opportunity to leapfrog their opponents and gain a slender advantage on their nearest rivals.

Following the Christmas break, Lyon appeared to put their troubles behind them with four consecutive victories, with two in the domestic cups and two in the league. Their inconsistency quickly returned however as they were dumped out of both cups in the space of four days. First, they narrowly lost away at Monaco 2-1 in the French Cup, which was swiftly followed by an exit from the League Cup at the hands of Lorient, a team Les Gones had defeated comfortably in the league a week earlier. The disappointing week gives Claude Puel’s team two key areas to focus on, wrestling back the Ligue 1 title and the Champions League last 16 match against European giants Real Madrid. As it stands Lyon have a mountain to climb if they are to overturn the 11 point lead that Bordeaux currently possess at the summit of Le Championnat. The fact remains that without Argentine international Lisandro Lopez, Lyon would be a lot worse off than they are now. The man signed to fill the boots of the now departed Karim Benzema has certainly done his bit to help Les Gones grapple with Bordeaux to regain the elusive title. The striker came out this week and said: “I’d barely signed my contract and already the fans and the supporters and everyone was telling me I had to replace Benzema. But I don’t replace anyone, not Benzema, not anyone.” He added: “I just give my absolute maximum out on the pitch, do things as well as I can so that things go as well as possible for me and the club and that the fans are happy.” It cannot be said that Lopez has not stayed true to his word following solid and consistent performances that have yielded 16 goals in all competitions this season. At times, it appears that the 26-year-old, who has played seven times for Argentina and is eyeing a place alongside Lionel Messi up front in South Africa, is carrying his team-mates. If Lyon are to close the gap further they are going to have to rely on the striker further to guarantee success or they will almost certainly end the season trophyless for the second consecutive season. This is without doubt a possibility that does not rest well with the demanding supporters of Les Gones.

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