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Ligue 1 mid-season awards: Nice, Monaco making the certain unpredictable

Ligue 1 mid-season awards: Nice, Monaco making the certain unpredictable

We’re halfway there. With (most) teams having played 19 matches, here’s a look at the best, and worst, of the Ligue 1 season so far.

Story of the Season: 1-club league no more

When Paris Saint-Germain was crowned champion last season by an obscene margin over Lyon, it capped-off a four-year spell of utter dominance by the nouveau riche capital club.

Four titles by an average edge of 14 points, and France’s top flight had become burdened by the one-club league narrative. A tired trope on the continent, the league was at risk of again becoming bogged down by talk of PSG’s sovereignty.

Courtesy of dazzling starts from Nice and Monaco, that story has become reticent, and more than just challenging PSG’s stranglehold on the league, the two Cote d’Azur sides separated by a half-hour drive have made better claims for the title than Unai Emery’s inconsistent Parisians.

Under Lucien Favre, Nice has taken last year’s surprise fourth-placed finish and bettered it, conceding a scant 13 goals in 18 matches using a side of mainly unproven players. Young and spurious no more, as Nice sits atop the table thanks to the exploits of the likes Ricardo Pereira (23), Jean Michael Seri (25), Yoan Cardinale (22), Alassane Plea (23), Wylan Cyprian (21), and Malang Sarr (18). The Mario Balotelli rebirth hasn’t hurt either.

Like Nice, Monaco has had success because of team efforts, though while its Riviera brethren has been buoyed by defensive displays, Leonardo Jardim’s squad has forged Europe’s most explosive attack. The principality club’s 54 goals scored is tops among the continent’s top-five leagues, as is a startling plus-35 goal differential after 18 matches played.

Best Player: Edinson Cavani

To adopt the MVP logic employed by North American leagues, no player in Ligue 1 has been of greater value to his club than Edinson Cavani at Paris Saint-Germain.

After four league titles on the trot – the last of which was by a 31-point margin on Lyon and sorted by this point of the campaign – PSG finally has competition for the crown, and without Cavani, the capital club would be worse off than five points adrift of Nice.

The Uruguayan’s 19 goals account for half of PSG’s league haul this season, the highest such ratio in the league, and is tops among goalscorers in Europe’s top five leagues at the midway point. Pair that with match-winners in five of the club’s 12 domestic victories and Cavani has been Ligue 1’s best.

Honourable mentions: Jean Michael Seri (Nice), Thomas Lemar (Monaco)

Biggest Disappointment: Lille

As uninspired and erratic as Unai Emery’s spell at PSG has been, Lille has been three shades of putrid.

It would appear that last campaign’s second-half surge was nothing more than a tease for the 2010-11 league winner. As fleeting as motivator Frederic Antonetti’s spell was with the club, long gone is both the ebullient Corsican’s spirit and the form Les Dogues displayed in coming fifth last season.

That run was courtesy of staunch defending, with Antonetti’s side conceding a league second-best 27 goals. This season under caretaker Patrick Collot, Lille has already allowed 26 tallies while only bagging 18.

With just four points away from the Stade Pierre-Maufoy this campaign, Lille will need to mend its travel trouble to avoid the drop with trips to the capital and Lyon looming large after the break.

Honourable mention: Paris Saint-Germain

Biggest Surprise: Guingamp

After narrowly avoiding the drop last season, little was expected of Breton minnow Guingamp.

Surprise, surprise, the 2014 Coupe de France champ from a town several sheep shy of 8,000 sits fifth thanks to a brilliant home record and scoring by committee.

Journeyman Jimmy Briand leads the line with six goals, with Yannis Salibur, Nill de Pauw, and Marcus Coco second with four apiece, while left-back Fernando Marcal helps anchor a back-four that has conceded just 19 times thus far.

On 30 points with Marseille and Rennes, Guingamp’s first six league matches after the break will go a long way to determining the legitimacy of its Europa League claims. Tilts with Marseille and Rennes are paired with a visit to Nice as Antoine Kombouare’s lot looks to stay relevant in the hunt for European football.

Honourable mention: Nice

Breakout Star: Thomas Lemar

With dazzling displays both domestically and in the Champions League for group winner Monaco, Thomas Lemar has emerged as the next French player poised for a move to one of the continent’s best.

Able to ply his trade on either flank, Lemar, 21, has combined a penchant for considerable free-kicks with dribbling and passing skills to shine among Jardim’s star-studded side.

With six goals and four assists in the league, Lemar is second only to Radamel Falcao (12 and 2) for involvement in the club’s tallies, while his match-winner on Nov. 22 at Wembley effectively ended Tottenham’s continental hopes.

Honourable mention: Alassane Plea (Nice)

Best Signing: Mario Balotelli

Fully entrenched in Jurgen Klopp’s Merseyside doghouse at Liverpool alongside Christian Benteke, enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli made the Nice switch on a free transfer with little expectations.

Seemingly reformed after an early career marred by off-pitch recklessness, Balotelli has – against all odds – become a symbol of maturity among Favre’s budding Nice side.

Balotelli’s eight Ligue 1 goals is the most the Italian international has bagged since the 2013-14 AC Milan campaign, and the troubled striker is slated to break that career-best total with 19 matches to play.

Honourable mentions: Benjamin Mendy (Monaco), Djibril Sidibe (Monaco)

Biggest Bust: Grzegorz Krychowiak

One of the main criticisms of Unai Emery has been his lack of squad rotation, and surprisingly, the biggest victim of the Spaniard’s stagnant approach has been a player he brought with him from Sevilla.

Polish international Grzegorz Krychowiak has made just seven league starts this season after a €33-million move from the Andalusians, as Emery inexplicably continues to opt for the sluggish Thiago Motta in a three-man midfield alongside Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi.

Considering how well versed the 26-year-old is in France with previous spells at Bordeaux, Reims, and Nantes, Krychowiak’s absence from the starting XI has been a mystifying decision from the embattled gaffer in his first season succeeding Laurent Blanc.

To be fair, Krychowiak’s signing has been one of three questionable moves made by Emery, with attackers Hatem Ben Arfa and Jese narrowly ceding the honour to their PSG teammate.

Honourable mentions: Hatem Ben Arfa (PSG), Jese (PSG)

Favourite Moment: Toulouse 2-0 PSG

It’s impossible not to cheer for Pascal Dupraz and his undermanned Les Pitchouns, especially after a 2-0 victory over title-holder PSG at the Stadium Municipal in late September.

Dupraz and co., running off the fumes of last campaign’s heroic safety-snatch late-season run, welcomed the capital club to the Haute-Garonne region, and it was Toulouse who came out on top courtesy of goals from Yann Bodiger and Swedish afterthought Jimmy Durmaz.

Not bad for a side who lost its best player, Wissam Ben Yedder, in the summer to Sevilla, and credit to young centre-back pairing Christopher Jullien, 23, and Issa Diop, 19, for keeping TFC in the top half at the midway point.

Honourable mention: Nice 3-2 Marseille

Best XI