Autumn champions have gone on to take the top-flight crown six times in the past 10 seasons but the title race is anything but over, insists Philippa Booth.
At the halfway point in the Ligue 1 season, Nice have held onto their early lead to remain two points clear of Monaco in second place with PSG a further three points behind in third.
The league leaders ensured their status as autumn champions with a 2-1 win over Dijon in Game 18 last Sunday as they capitalised on high-flying Monaco losing 3-1 at home to Lyon and PSG being beaten 2-1 away to Guingamp. This collective stutter from their title rivals gave Nice a cushion before their 2016 curtain-closer at Bordeaux on Wednesday and also slightly closed the gap down to the chasing pack as their opponents moved into fourth and fifth, respectively.
That breathing room was necessary as Nice went to Bordeaux with four of their regular back five out injured, before seeing goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale limp off early in the second half. Things got worse when they went down to nine men in a goalless draw, with Mario Balotelli and Younes Belhanda both sent off in injury time. However, Nice can take comfort from the fact that autumn champions have gone on to win the title six times* in the last 10 Ligue 1 seasons; with no European distractions to worry about, they are still in the driving seat.
Meanwhile, Monaco got back to winning ways with a 2-1 win at home to Caen in midweek. This puts their mid-point conversion rate at 22.5%. Much has been said about their frightening conversion rate, which pushed 25% earlier in the month, and it is worth adding some context. In the last six seasons, for example, the highest shot conversion rate at the end of a campaign was PSG with a little over 18%** last term. At this point last season, the Parisians were at 16.8%, with Nice second on 16.4%; the Eaglets ended the season on 15%, and were the only team to exceed 20% after August in all that time.
There are perhaps two factors to Monaco’s goalscoring prowess. Firstly, they don’t let up. In some leagues a team that is three goals ahead might take their foot off the gas but Monaco keep going against teams who would really rather just call it quits and go home. They’ve scored three or more in 10 games so far, and only failed to score once against Nice.
Second, this is widescreen football – Monaco have 15 goalscorers so far in all competitions. It must be tricky for defences to deal with potential threats when that could mean anybody except the goalkeeper (and even that wouldn’t surprise you…). Even their B-team won 8-0 against Nice’s Reserves in CFA Group D the other week.
Rumours are swirling around the likelihood of under-fire Unai Emery remaining in the PSG job because of their patchy form. To say he could “buy some time” with a win over Lorient was the very definition of setting the bar low but the way they cleared it was impressive, with a 5-0 win over the Lanterne Rouge. Whether the result makes much difference to the PSG coach’s chances of staying with the champions remains to be seen.
The winter break leaves things intriguingly poised, therefore, with a resurgent Lyon, entertaining Guingamp and Marseille under new management looking to crash the podium party. And with 2017 kicking off with the Coupe de France ninth round there could be many more surprises ahead.
*Stat courtesy of David Wall at Opta
**Data for conversion rates (all shots) and safety points comes from http://football-data.co.uk/
Follow Philippa on Twitter at @Philby1976