France may conjure up a title race in 2023

IN THE SMALL city of Lens there was rejoicing on New Year’s Day – RC Lens beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 to close the gap at the top of Ligue 1 to four points. It was PSG’s first defeat of the season in the league and underlined the impressive run by Les Sang et Or in 2022-23, whose 40 points is the best performance by a second-placed team at this stage of the season since 1959.

PSG were stunned, but they were without Neymar and Lionel Messi. Nevertheless, PSG’s owners won’t be impressed that their team was swept aside by opponents who have a playing budget that is but a tiny fraction of the Paris wage bill. Coach Christoph Galtier refused to blame the absence of two of his star men for the defeat, admitting that Lens deserved their win. “Athletically, we were dominated,” he said after the game.

PSG may have been suffering from a post-World Cup hangover. Messi was on extended leave, Neymar was suspended after being sent-off against Strasbourg and Kylian Mbappé had reasons for being subdued after losing the World Cup final despite scoring a hat-trick. PSG made hard work of their December 28 game against Strasbourg, relying on a 96th minute penalty to win 2-1. Before meeting PSG, Lens had a 100% home record and had lost just once, a 1-0 Derby du Nord defeat at the hands of Lille.

  PWDLFAPtsg.d.
1PSG171421461344+33
2Lens171241291140+18
3Marseille171133341536+19
4Monaco171034332333+10

Franck Haiser’s side adopted an aggressive style, pressing constantly and placing PSG under constant pressure. It says a lot about the lack of competitiveness in Ligue 1 that PSG have rarely faced such tenacious opponents in domestic football in recent years. Lens took an early lead but within three minutes, it was 1-1, but goals in the 28th and 48th minutes gave them a shock 3-1 victory. It was PSG’s first defeat since March 2022, a run of 38 games.

But there’s still a long way to go, and over the last decade, there have been a few occasions when a French side looks up for a title battle, but inevitably, PSG have been too strong for anyone to keep pace with them. Only Monaco in 2017 and Lille in 2021 have managed to outperform the Parisians. Lens have one of the smallest wage bills in the division, so even mounting a challenge for part of the season would be something of an achievement.

That’s not to say Lens don’t have some interesting talent, notably Florian Sotoca, the experienced former Grenoble striker and Loïs Openda, the 22 year-old Belgian front man. And then there’s Austrian central defender Kevin Danso, who was excellent against PSG. Seko Fofana and Salis Abdul Samed also caught the eye against the Ligue 1 champions.

French football could do with an exciting second half of the campaign, especially after that heartbreaking World Cup final defeat in Qatar. Lens have shown they know how to get to PSG, but if Neymar and Messi had been in the team, it would probably have been a different outcome. It’s difficult to see the clubs immediately behind Lens – Marseille and Monaco – making much of a statement, but the result at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis will act as a form of inspiration. The transfer window is opening and that may be bad news for the rest of Ligue 1. PSG will undoubtedly be busy in the coming weeks. The question is, do Lens have what it takes to remain in contention?

UEFA Europa League: Arsenal and United swing into action

TWO English clubs who would really prefer to be slugging it out in the Champions League start their Europa League campaigns. Arsenal, who have not participated in the premier competition since 2016-17, return to Europe with a trip to FC Zurich. Manchester United, who reached the last 16 of the Champions League in 2017-18, have had to settle for the Europa this season.

Arsenal are playing in St. Gallen because the match clashes with an athletics meeting in Zurich. Despite losing their unbeaten record against Manchester United, they arrived in Switzerland as Premier League leaders, with five wins from six games. They have been in excellent form, playing attractive football and scoring goals, a big contrast from their opponents, who have started 2022-23 abysmally. Zurich, Swiss Super League champions in 2021-22 for the first time since 2009, have just two points from their first even games. The mood was set on the opening day of the season when they were thrashed by Young Boys 4-0.  

Zurich lost their coach, André Breitenreiter to Hoffenheim and appointed Franco Foda as his successor in June 2022. Foda is a very different manager to his predecessor. “We were deliberately not looking for a copy of Breitenreiter, but an experienced coach who can develop this team both technically and tactically,” explained Zurich’s president Ancillo Canepa. Despite their league form and an early Champions League exit, Zurich shifted to the Europa and have beaten two British clubs already, Linfield and Hearts.

Arsenal will be among the favourites for the Europa League this season. Their two European trophies have, unfortunately, been consigned to history. The first was won in 1970, the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup, which was not a UEFA-inaugurated competition, and they lifted the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1994.

Manchester United are in far better shape than they were a few weeks ago and will also be among the more fancied teams. They have beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in recent games and have dispersed the black clouds that descended on Old Trafford in August. Manager Erik ten Hag has turned round what was becoming a very tricky situation. Their 3-1 win against Arsenal was impressive and marked the debut of Brazilian striker Antony, who scored the first goal in that victory. Ten Hag has shown resilience in the way he has handled the Cristiano Ronaldo affair well and the Portuguese striker has been used sparingly. United won the Europa in 2017 and were finalists in 2021.

Real Sociedad have had a patchy start to the season and have struggled to score goals. They could include former Manchester City midfielder David Silva in their line-up. They have a modest European record having played in the Europa for three consecutive seasons, but their best run was in the European Cup in 1983 when they reached the semi-finals, losing to eventual winners Hamburg SV.

There are other attractive games in the first matchday of the Europa League. Lazio are playing Feyenoord, the runners-up in the UEFA Conference League last season. Lazio, under Maurizio Sarri, have lost just once in Serie A and have been in decent form. They still have Ciro Immobile in their forward line, but the sharp-shooter is now 32 years old. They finished fifth last season and they should be in for another good year. Feyenoord are unbeaten, winning four of their five games, and are third in the Eredivisie. They are old European campaigners, having won the European Cup in 1970 and UEFA Cup in 1974 and 2002.

Red Star Belgrade have also won the European Cup, in 1991, and they remain Serbia’s most visible club on the international stage. They host Monaco, who reached the Champions League final in 2004 and European Cup-Winners’ Cup final in 1992. Red Star were denied a place in the Champions League group stage by Maccabi Haifa, while Monaco were eliminated in the third qualifying round by PSV Eindhoven. Red Star are unbeaten in their domestic league, but trail surprise club Novi Pazar by a single point. Monaco’s league form has been mixed so far.

There are 12 other group games:  PSV v Bødo/Glimt; AEK Larnarca v Rennes; Fenerbahce v Dynamo Kyiv; HJK Helsinki v Real Betis; Ludogorets v Roma; Union Berlin v Union Saint-Gilloise; Malmo v Sporting Braga; Omonia Nicosia v Sherrif; Sturm Graz v Midtjylland; Nantes v Olympiakos; Freiburg v Qarabag; Ferencvaros v Trabzonspor.