A Grand Finale : The Run in for the French Title
Any one of the top six has a decent chance of winning the league. It doesn't get any tighter than 6 points separating first place Lyon (59pts) and sixth place Toulouse (53pts). In between, the pack are harder to sort out than a French air traffic controller's summer strike action.
So what of the contenders for Lyon's crown. What are they made of? Who has le stuff to step up and snatch the crown?
Lets start with the champions themselves. Hugo Lloris, their excellent young goalkeeper said this week that they wont give up their title easily. They are still top so you've got to believe the guy. But their shaky back four led by Cris and Boumsong have at times looked only too willing to flog Le Championnat on a first come first serve basis. They also have a problem in attack. Juninho is a waning force and when Benzema is not scoring Lyon have a tendency to struggle. If anything is likely to get in the way of a seventh title win it will be this over reliance on Benzema as a source of goals.
Second spot and hot on Lyon's heels are Marseille (58pts). Every Rangers man's least favourite bunch of cheats are a resurgent force. Led by their inspirational and totemic captain Lorik Cana and cannily coached by Erik Gerets they look a good side when firing on all cylinders. What they do have is goals from all over the place. They have the best attacking options of the top six clubs. Brandao has added well to the already dangerous Mamadou Niang and Bakari Cone. Hatem ben Arfa is the star of a very creative and attacking midfield that creates plenty of chances. 8 goals in their last 3 games, two which were away to PSG and St Etienne says it all. They have a tough run in though with games against Lille (away), Lyon (home), Toulouse (away) all to see off. But they have the look of a side with real momentum.
In third are Bordeaux (56pts). Up and down all season. At times inspirational and brilliantly coaxed on by Yoann Gourcuff. But the week after dismal and lacking in any spark. Blanc is developing as a coach and has got more than could have been reasonably expected from this group. Europe perhaps stretched their thin squad though. Cavenaghi has been a big miss and getting him back and fit is important. With 23 goals between him and Marouane Chamakh this season Bordeaux have the goals potential. They also have a decent head of steam, with 5 wins on the bounce and now that European distractions are over they could yet close the gap when they host Lyon on 19April. A game that has the scent of a title decider even if one of these doesn't win it.
Lille (55pts) keep on keeping on in fourth. Les Dogues have kind of snuck under the radar this seaosn and find themselves in with a real chance. They've won their last 5 games, including a league and cup double over Lyon that left them looking a different and far more confident team. They have two of the outstanding midfield talents in France in Ludo Obraniak and Michel Bastos. The latter, a young Brazilian, has rightly attracted the attention of some of Europe's biggest clubs this season and looks a special player with an extremely gifted left peg. Between them they have notched 22 goals from midfield this season. A worthy return by any measure. They host PSG this weekend, then travel to St Etienne before hosting Marseille. If they get through those fixtures with 7 points (or more) they could well be in the final reckoning. They are capable.
Our old pal Paul ensures the capital has a competitor for the first time in nearly a decade. PSG are in fifth (55pts). Way too long without success for the Parisiens and PLG looks like he has the building blocks in place for a very solid and sustainble challenge next season and beyond. He has mixed youth and inexperience with old heads and high class performance. Hourau and Sessegnon have been revelations, and new life has been wrung out of Guily and Jerome Rothen. The midfield platform provided by Clement has been solid all season. They also have Zoumana Camara back to fitness in the heart of defence and that is a major boost. But PSG face a decisive week. At home to Kiev on Thursday then away to Lille on Sunday. They have fallen flat against the top six too often this season for me to believe they can maintain their challenge through to the business end of the season. But a top four spot is still possible and that would be some achievement.
Last but by no means least we have Toulouse. Capable of stunning results, they have dished out toal cuffings to Lyon, PSG and Bordeaux this season. But they are also capable of mystifying and grim lows that make you wonder how on earth they have got so close this season. Like Lyon they are criminally over reliant on one man to get goals. Pierre Alain Gignac has been brilliant all season and has attracted plenty of Premiership interest. Signed to replace Elmander he has plenty in his locker. Pacey, strong and good off both feet he has a real chance of doing big things in the game. Toulouse have a smattering of good players. Ettienne Didot is a great on field leader and anyone who watched the French U-21s hand out a lesson to England will know what a fine player Moussa Sissoko is. They also have the powerful Daniel Braaten adding to their forward momentum. Ultimately I reckon inconsistency will cost Toulouse a title that was there for the winning this season.
How will it all end? It would be a brave man to predict this one. All teams are fallible and capable in equal measure. Strengths and weakensses are pretty even across the top six. But, it would be an equally brave man that bets against the experience and winning mentality of Lyon. But I am going to do it anyway.
Marseille to pip Lyon to the title on the last day of the season.