Ligue 1 review: PSG finish strong to overcome fierce challenges

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Celebrations: PSG's quadruple.

The Ligue 1 title race may have had a predictable conclusion but it was by far the most exciting of all Europe’s top five leagues.

– LA LIGA: Rafa Benitez out ‘to win everything possible’ with Real Madrid
– VIDEO: Five things to know about the Champions League final 2015
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– FOLLOW: Our live score centre for match updates

In a season which saw six different teams lead the table, with eight matches to go the standings read: Paris Saint-Germain – 59 points, Lyon – 58 and Marseille 57.

In the end, PSG were worthy winners, but Laurent Blanc’s all-powerful juggernaut hadn’t actually got their noses in front until that moment.

The defending champions sealed a third title on the bounce with nine straight wins but they found an admirable adversary in Lyon who represented an interesting paradox in French football.

Lyon were once the big spenders in Ligue 1, lavishing millions throughout the 2000s in winning seven of the decades 10 championships, but it wasn’t sustainable and when the money dried up, a change of approach from president Jean-Michel Aulas has seen them work their way to the top in a different manner.

Each week, Hubert Fournier – who replaced Remi Garde last May – would regularly field 7-8 academy graduates in his starting XI and the only paid-for player actually in his squad was perennial substitute Arnold Mvuemba.

Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir became household names, while the likes of Anthony Lopes, Samuel Umtiti and Corentin Tolisso also enjoyed breakout seasons.

In the end, Fournier’s men ran out of steam, but for a side who finished fifth – 28 points behind PSG – the season before, to top the table for 11 weeks and close that gap to eight was a fine achievement.

While Lyon enjoyed their best phase in the middle part of the season, PSG were primed for a strong finish and, indeed, despite juggling two domestic cup commitments and the Champions League, Blanc’s side got the job done.

An injury-plagued Zlatan Ibrahimovic had his ‘worst’ nine months at the club since arriving from AC Milan but still managed 19 in 24 games in the league with Edinson Cavani adding a further 18.

With Marco Verratti pulling the strings in midfield, the energy of Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Silva doing the defensive work of two men, following David Luiz’s arrival, PSG’s core was just too strong for their rivals to break.

Slipping to fourth at the start of January, Blanc looked set for the chop but you’d think a domestic quadruple of league, Super Cup, Coupe de France and Coupe de la Ligue should be enough to keep him in a job over the summer.

As consistent as PSG proved down the home stretch, Marseille were equally as inconsistent and combustible as their charismatic coach Marcelo Bielsa.

Marseille set the early pace and were league leaders from the end of September up to the winter break. In true Bielsa fashion, though, Marseille’s swashbuckling style had a limited shelf-life and where they where once sweeping all-comers aside they were soon conceding five goals at home to Lorient and three to Caen, dropping points to sides in the bottom half of the table.

It hit them hard, as a season in which the top three looked a certainity ahead of the second half eventually saw them finish fourth and out of the Champions League spots.

That place was taken by Monaco, who under Leonardo Jardim impressed in a different way finishing the season with the best defensive record in the league with goalkeeper Danijel Subasic claiming a remarkable 20 clean sheers.

Like at Lyon, Jardim also helped bring through a raft of impressive young talent with Anthony Martial, Fabinho, Wallace and Bernardo Silva bringing scouts flocking to the Stade Louis II.

St Etienne threatened to break into the elite but a lack of a consistent goal threat saw them fall just short.

Bordeaux’s strong finish – two defeats in 17 – while moving into the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux gives them hope for next season while the likes of Rennes and Nice – who beat Guingamp 7-2 with Carlos Eduardo scoring five – performed admirably on tight budgets.

At the bottom, Evian, Metz and Lens occupied the last three spots for almost the entire second half of the season with the only doubt being the order in which they’d be relegated.

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Rafael Benitez to bring own 'methodology' to Real Madrid

niall 3/06/2015
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Rafael Benitez was presented as the new coach of Spanish giants Real Madrid on Wednesday.









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#360view: Rafael Benitez’s relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo is key

Andy West 3/06/2015
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Cristiano Ronaldo will be central to Rafael Benitez's success at Real Madrid.

With Rafa Benitez appointment at Real Madrid confirmed, it will be worth keeping an eye on Cristiano Ronaldo’s social media accounts.

The Portuguese, don’t forget, was quick to use digital media to offer his support for Carlo Ancelotti just before the Italian was sacked, expressing his hope that they would work together next season despite clearly knowing by then that such ascenario was highly unlikely.

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Whether Ronaldo will be so eager to welcome his new coach remains to be seen. But if the 55 million followers of Ronaldo’s Twitter and Instagram accounts are confronted by a wall of silence upon Benitez’s formal introduction, it could spell trouble ahead.

As the most high-profile player at the club and one of the most influential characters within the dressing room, a few positive words from last season’s La Liga leading scorer could go a long way towards dispelling some of the negative 
energy surrounding Madrid’s pursuit of Benitez.

It wouldn’t take much effort. Ten seconds would be all that’s required for CR7 to merrily tweet something along the lines of: “Looking forward to working with Rafa Benitez, a great coach.”

That would mean a great deal because Benitez, for sure, needs Ronaldo.

For starters, he needs the boost in status among supporters which a few kind words from Real’s star player would provide.
He also needs Ronaldo’s support in the dressing room, helping to reassure any players who might be wavering over whether or not Benitez is worthy of their backing. 

And most of all, Benitez needs Ronaldo on the pitch, where his ability as one of the most potent goalscorers of all-time will surely play a crucial role in determining how much success he enjoys.

Even though they were long-time foes at Manchester United and Liverpool, there is no particular reason why Ronaldo should be unhappy with the identity of his new coach.

They do not have any history of personal animosity during their time in England, and professionals are usually able to easily rise above the tribal rivalries that so easily inflame fans – note, for example, Iker Casillas’s long-standing close friendship with Barcelona captain Xavi. But Ronaldo was clearly indignant with Ancelotti’s dismissal – not the first time he’s had a difference of opinion with club president Florentino Perez.

And if the back-to-back Ballon d’Or winner feels that he needs another excuse to further cool his relationship with his employers, the arrival of a coach who has won precious little in the last decade could be an explosive scenario.

There have even been suggestions that Ronaldo will be sold this summer, which is unlikely but not entirely impossible if Perez 
receives an outlandish offer for a 30 year-old who is starting to cause him too much bother.

Assuming Ronaldo stays, however, obsessive tactician Benitez will have plenty of thinking to do. Does he keep his biggest game-winner in the left-wing role he has occupied for the last few years, or move him into a more central position?

Plenty believe Ronaldo’s changing style would benefit from such a transition, but whether the player himself does is a different matter. 

And if he doesn’t fancy it, Benitez may soon learn that the coach doesn’t make all the decisions at Real Madrid.

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