Promoted Angers and Caen are punching above their weight in Ligue 1

After Caen’s 3-0 home loss to PSG in the last round before the winter break, Nicolas Seube was disconsolate in the post-match interview. Asked what the hardest thing is about facing PSG, the pause as he considered all the hard things to try to find the hardest told its own story.

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Eventually, he simply said, “it’s hard – we had hope for this match.” Some might think that was ridiculously optimistic, but that spirit is a big part of why Caen are fourth at Christmas having only been promoted for the 2014/15 season. Another reason why they had hope against PSG – whose league record is won 16, drawn three, lost none – is another, even more unexpected, promotion story.

PSG’s last draw was away at Angers, third place in Ligue 2 last season, who are quietly and efficiently doing their business and now sit third in Ligue 1 at the winter break. Unlike Caen’s freewheeling and slightly chaotic approach to games, Angers rely on a solid defence; they are the only club this season to have stopped PSG scoring – apart from Real Madrid. While their attack is middling in terms of shots, accuracy, conversion etc, their timing seems to be better than most other clubs – they don’t score many goals but when they do, they’re important. They very nearly forced a point in the last game of the year at St Etienne, Slimane Sissoko’s last-minute rocket crashing off the bar and on – but not quite over – the line.

When unexpected teams end up on the podium, there is much discussion as to whether their position is sustainable. In the Premier League, Leicester are getting this in a big way but are ploughing cheerfully on regardless, their situation reminiscent of the 2011/12 Ligue 1 season when everybody assumed that Montpellier would drop off by, variously, October/Christmas/the restart/Easter and just didn’t.

Angers aren’t going for the title, of course – at the current rate, PSG should have that sewn up by the end of February – but there’s only ten points between sixteenth and second, and nobody else can really put a decent run of form together. The other teams above Angers in the form table (last five league games) are Monaco who are second, but yet to win by more than one goal; fellow promotees Gazelec Ajaccio who are on a wonderful run to get up to the giddy heights of twelfth place; and Lille, eleventh, who are so far reacting well to Frederic Antonetti’s takeover.

The mirror of the sustainability discussion is the ongoing expectation that big teams finding themselves in a pickle will inevitably get themselves out of it; Marseille have pulled themselves together a bit after a shaky start but still have concentration and defensive issues, and they are joined in mid-table by injury-ravaged Lyon, in a tailspin with one point from their last six games. Nice’s free-scoring start has abated, and St Etienne need a striker. So it is that Caen sit in fourth with a goal difference of -1, which just about sums up how strange things are in Ligue 1 this season.

In the end-of-year round-ups, the focus will undoubtedly be on PSG’s dominance of Ligue 1 and the extent to which this is a bad thing for all concerned; however, the prospect of Angers and Caen staying in the fight for a place in Europe, and a spot on the podium, is a bright note of festive cheer.

Read more from Philippa here

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