Some Nice Things that Happened this Year in French Football

PSG 1 Rennes 2

Remember when Rennes could play football? Remember when they could win matches with nine men? Rennes’ form in the last few weeks of the season has been so bad that it is easy to forget just how entertaining they were in the early parts of the campaign. With Julien Féret spraying brilliant passes around in his own inimitable style and Romain Alessandrini staging his own goal of the season competition, Rennes’ matches before Christmas were really worth watching, none more so that their astonishing win in Paris in week 13. Aside from the ridiculousness of the second half, this game makes it into my end-of-season selection for the fact that all three goals were utterly brilliant.

First Romain Alessandrini bashed a screamer in from 25 metres, then Nêne ran on to a fantastic pass from Pastore to clip a beautiful finish over Benoît Costil. Ten minutes after the Rennes goalkeeper was sent off for a lunge at Jérémy Ménez, Rennes retook the lead. PSG were so worried about the potency of Alessandrini’s left foot that when Rennes won a free kick on the edge of the area no-one thought that Julien Féret might take it. But take it he did, and he pushed an intelligent and well placed shot into the bottom corner.

Barely five minutes into the second half Jean II Makoun had one of those brain explosions he is prone to and picked up a second yellow for a pointless foul on Nenê, the first having been awarded for protesting the decision to send Costil off (the cards for Costil and Makoun were the only ones Rennes received all game). Left with 40 minutes to play with nine men, Rennes did not appear to have much of a chance, but despite PSG throwing on more and more attackers (by the game’s end they were playing a 1-0-9 formation) and creating chance after chance the goal would not come.

The statistics entered surreal territory: PSG had 24 shots, 18 corners, crossed the ball 59 times and on the hour mark hit the woodwork twice during the same attack. Substitute goalkeeper Cheick N’Diaye had the match of his life, repelling everything that PSG threw at him. At the full time whistle the Rennes bench cleared, all hurtling towards N’Diaye to celebrate him like a man who had just saved the penalty that won his side the Champions League. It was quite an afternoon.

Nice 3 Evian 2

Nice’s come back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 in week 18 was first and foremost an excellent game of football, but also a fascinating case-study in momentum, and how it can be generated or quelled. Evian opened up a two-goal lead inside fifteen minutes but Nice, who were on a hot streak of 17 points from their last seven games, hit back immediately. Dario Cvitanich received the ball just outside the area and clipped a superb chip over Bertrand Laquait and into the top corner.

Cvitanich’s goal was excellent, but it was also fascinating to see the effect the nature and timing of the goal, not just the goal itself, had on proceedings. Had Evian held on to their two goal lead for just ten minutes more, and conceded a scrappy goal from a corner they probably would not have been so obviously perturbed. But to concede straight away, and to a goal that brutally yet beautifully exposed the gulf in class between the sides, suggested that this would be Nice’s night. The home side pressed relentlessly against a clearly subdued opponent, and Cvitanich equalised early in the second half with a goal as inglorious as his first was glorious. Nice dominated the rest of the second half and finally got the winner in injury time, 16 year old Neal Maupay controlling Timothée Kolodziejczak’s hopeful cross and powering the ball in for his first goal in Ligue 1 before disappearing amongst a pile of bodies.

Anything Mathieu Valbuena did in 2013.

Already playing at a high level in the first half of the season, Mathieu Valbuena was at the forefront of a cadre of senior players at OM who in 2013 simply played at an astonishing level. André-Pierre Gignac was scoring important goals, Nicolas N’Koulou was stopping dangerous forwards and Steve Mandanda was making saves he had no right to make (his performance away at Lille was that of someone playing the lead role in their own superhero comic book). But Valbuena trumped them all. “Relentless” is rarely a word associated with creators. It is often reserved for goalscorers who cannot be contained, or defensive players who simply will not let themselves be beaten. Yet the only way I can describe Valbuena’s impact on his side is to refer to his relentless creativity. Constantly seeking out space, making himself available for passes and doing the hardest work in football – unlocking packed defences – with very little help. Qualification for the Champions League would trigger an automatic one year extension in Valbuena’s contract at Marseille, and the little man played like someone determined to stay on the south coast.

Samuel Umtiti’s goal at White Hart Lane

Occasionally a goal is scored that no words can fully describe, but that you yearn to read and write about nonetheless. Samuel Umtiti’s equaliser in Lyon’s Europa League tie away at Spurs was just such a goal. Usual attempts at describing this goal would leave me disappointed, but I found that calquéing as much as possible the description of it in l’equipe’s online report amused me, so I wrote it down.

“But the young defender of Lyon will remember for a long time his evening at White Hart Lane because in the 55th minute, he scored an extraordinary goal. Rebuffed by the head of Gallas, the cross of Malbranque bounced before Umtiti who did not ask himself any questions and dispatched a superpowered half-volley into the top corner of the powerless Friedel”

I do not know why this amused me, but it did. For what it’s worth, when I saw Umtiti’s goal live on TV my exact words were “Jesus fucking CHRIST!” Not that the son of God ever hit one this cleanly.

PSG 3 Nice 0

On the 21st of April PSG played Nice at home and recorded a regulation win in their end-of-season stroll to the Ligue 1 title. This match was memorable for two reasons. The first was Renato Civelli, who is massive, going head to head with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is also massive. Both players seemed to enjoy the physical confrontation, so much so that Civelli felt the need just before half time to give Zlatan a little kiss on the neck. It said, “see you in the second half.” Lovely.

This game was also to be remembered for Thiago Silva scoring quite possibly the best disallowed goal of all time. I am still unsure as to how Thiago did it. Joris Delle left a through ball, confident that it would roll out of play. Thiago hurdled the prone Nice keeper and, still going at full pelt, clipped the ball from behind the byline near the edge of the area into the back of the net. Like all the great goals it gets better each time you see it. The most amazing aspect for me was the fact that when the ball bounced it was already over the goal-line. The look on Thiago’s face when he saw the linesman (correctly) signalling for a goal-kick was rather endearing, like a little boy being told that his puppy died.

Also on the weekend of the 20th of April…

The oft-forgotten coda to the story of Thiago’s disallowed goal is that less than 24 hours later Nabil Dirar scored a goal (that did count; it put Monaco 2-0 up against Clermont) in near identical circumstances which was possibly more beautiful for the way the ball span and span along the goal-line until it gripped the turf and rolled in.

However my favourite thing that happened that weekend was Nancy’s 3-1 win over Evian. Nancy scored three goals. The first was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did), the second was a free shot at the far post from a corner and the third was a shot that barely crossed the line (if it did) from a free shot at the far post from a corner. As I wrote at the time in a brilliant joke that was understood by precisely one person (thank you Raphael), it was a football as classical essay writing: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

The goals of Adrian Mutu

Bear with me. Adrian Mutu made some waves back in August when he claimed that he would score more goals this season than his one-time Juventus team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic. That he failed in this particular endeavour should not come as a great surprise. But the Romanian, who either side of his ill-fated spell in the Premier League was one of the most decisive players in Serie A, nonetheless made a huge contribution to keeping Ajaccio in Ligue 1, top-scoring with 11 goals (only one other Ajaccio other player got more than three goals: Chahir Belghazouani, who scored six). Taken in isolation, those goals (more than a quarter of his team’s total of 39) directly earned 10 of Ajaccio’s 40 point total. This is without discussing his role alongside Belghazouani and Johan Cavalli as the technical leader of the side and the attacking and defensive contribution that aspect of his game entailed. Zlatan may have got 30 goals and walked off with the title, but Mutu still deserves a mention for a productive and influential first season in Ligue 1.

Alternative team of the year.

We all knew that Zlatan would score a ton of goals, and it is no great surprise to see guys like Dimitri Payet or Mathieu Valbuena playing to such high standards. This, then, is a team of those who played well beyond a level that could reasonably have been expected (4-3-1-2)

Mandi, Lotiès, Pejčinović, Harek
Krychowiak, Camus, Cavalli
Aliadière, Modeste

Token nice things that happened elsewhere in Europe this season:

The team you manage is 0-3 up in the final minutes of the first leg of what could have been a far more complicated Champions League knockout tie. Trying to hold onto possession from a corner, your players make a bit of a hash of it and end up ceding possession. What do you do? You threaten to kill your players of course!

If last year you were told that Borussia Dortmund would get to the Champions League Final playing scintillating football and amid incredible drama, you probably would have said, “What?”

It surprised me that Loic Rémy’s goal against Wigan did not come up amid discussions of the Premier League goal of the season. All the other goals mentioned were of a type we have seen before (to take on example: Robin van Persie’s goal against Aston Villa, impressive though it was, was a pale imitation of the similar strikes against Everton and Liverpool while he played for Arsenal). Rémy’s goal against Wigan was like no other goal I have ever seen before. Having run three-quarters of the length of the pitch, he slowed up to get in line with Stéphane M’Bia’s pass and gently pushed the ball into the top corner. The speed with which the ball travelled was totally out of keeping with how Rémy approached the ball and how he struck it, rather like the Noisy Cricket gun from the first Men in Black film. Unassuming, but it packed quite a punch.