Ligue 1 title race the closest in Europe as Lyon, PSG, Marseille keep stumbling
"After you." "No, you first." "No, you go, really." "No, no, please, I insist."
For the past three weeks, Ligue 1 has become the most courteous league in Europe. Three teams are just waltzing around the top of the table with nobody seeming to want to grab it and win it. The table is neatly poised: Lyon (54 points), Paris Saint-Germain (53 points) and Marseille (50 points) just keep offering lifelines and gifting each other the opportunity to hang around.
With just four points between the top three teams in the table, Ligue 1 is by far the tightest title race of the five big European leagues; its closest rival for drama at the top is La Liga (Real 61, Barca 59, Atletico 54). The last time the top three in Ligue 1 all won was back on matchday 21 (January 17-18): Lyon away to Lens (2-0) and PSG and Marseille both at home to Evian (4-2) and Guingamp (2-1), respectively.
At that time, the table looked like this: Lyon 45 points, Marseille 44, PSG 41. In the six weeks since they have all dropped points and presented their rivals with a chance to supersede them, catch them up, go level on points or even rise to the top of the table.
First, Marseille had the chance to break free and go top with a win at Nice in Week 22; they lost. From being second, a point behind Lyon, they finished the weekend in third after PSG and Lyon were victorious against St Etienne and Metz.
The following weekend (matchday 23), Lyon only managed a draw at Monaco which meant that Marseille and PSG with two wins came back just two points behind the leaders (49 and 47). So for matchday 24, Marcelo Bielsa and his players had another great opportunity to go top of the table away at Rennes. But they drew. It meant that Paris (who travelled to Lyon that weekend) could take the lead for the first time this season with a win; they could only manage a draw and the table remained the same (50 points for Lyon, 48 for OM and PSG).
This charade continued in matchday 25. Marseille had the chance to go top if they beat Reims at home, PSG would go top if they beat Caen at home or Lyon could go four points clear if they beat Lorient away. They all drew instead. Marseille was then the only team not to win the following weekend (a last-minute draw at St Etienne) as Lyon beat Nantes and PSG defeated Toulouse. With 50 points, les Olympiens ended the weekend four points adrift of leaders Lyon (54) and two behind PSG (52).
Once again, they had a wonderful chance last weekend at home against Caen to come back in the title race. They played first, on Friday evening, and were 2-0 up after an hour but lost 3-2 and wasted another big opportunity to put pressure on Lyon and PSG. You would think that the leaders would take advantage of it at Lille? They didn't. They lost last Saturday after a shocking second half.
So it was all down to PSG, away at Monaco. A win and the Champions would go top; they could have won 3-0 but drew 0-0 instead. PSG have yet to be the Ligue 1 leaders this season.
In total, over the last six league games, PSG have dropped 6 points, Lyon 9 and Marseille 12. And the table looks like this now: Lyon on 54 points, PSG 53, Marseille 50.
So how can you explain this merry dance? Why have none of the teams found consistency and really gone for it?
Lyon played three games without their star striker, Alexandre Lacazette, and couldn't win any. He started the last two matches but is not 100 percent fit, something that's clearly frustrating him. Despite an obvious desire to come back in and hit pre-injury form (21 goals in 22 league games), he's scoreless in two.
The young Lyon squad (who also lost veteran defender Milan Bisevac for the remainder of the season) is feeling the pressure. At Lorient (1-1) and at Lille (a 2-1 defeat), they struggled with the expectations of being leaders. Though they have managed to stay top of the table over the past six weeks, they have also missed the chance of extending their lead, which could prove costly later.
PSG's excuse is that they've had the Champions League to deal with. Their round of 16 round clash against Chelsea has been in the players' minds since the draw was made back in December. They were complacent at 2-0 against Caen before losing two players through injury and finishing the game with nine men and a Twitter gaff to boot. They were then unlucky at Lyon and Monaco, denied victory in both games by two very good goalkeepers, Anthony Lopes and Danijel Subasic). The feeling is that PSG have had, and squandered, the chances to kill this title race already. And when you miss opportunities, you usually pay for it.
Finally, Marseille are experiencing unrest in their camp with tensions between Marcelo Bielsa and his players. His incredibly demanding methods and philosophy are draining for the Marseillais. Don't forget that they were top of the table at Christmas but since then, key players over the first half of the season are struggling (Dimitri Payet, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Giannelli Imbula) or are injured (Nicolas N'Koulou. They have lost the most points (12 out of 18) but despite that, you still can't rule them out for the title.
Ligue 1 has been totally unpredictable in the past few weeks and I am not too sure what to make of this weekend's fixtures, either: it looks easy for PSG at home to Lens (19th in the table) on Saturday, it looks reasonable for Marseille away at Toulouse (18th) on Friday and it looks tricky for Lyon at Montpellier (currently sixth with a game in hand and only one defeat in their last ten league games) on Sunday.
A win for PSG and OM and a draw for l'OL? That's what I might predict. But after what's happened recently, I would not put my house on it.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.