England striker Gary Lineker once quipped that, "football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans always win." Followers of the Ligue 1 in recent years must feel the same way about French juggernaut Olympique Lyonnais. Billed as overwhelming favourites after five consecutive titles, Gerard Houllier's men were unstoppable once again this season as they stormed over the finish line to collect an imposing sixth straight championship crown.
With the spine of the side still composed of Brazilian trio Cris, Juninho and Fred, the Rhone outfit have weathered what some feared would be the crippling losses of Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra over the last two summers. In fact, where that duo once ruled supreme, Jeremy Toulalan came into his own this term, dominating midfield as part of an excellent partnership with Portugal's Tiago and confirming all the potential he previously displayed at Nantes.
Further forward, Sidney Govou and Sylvain Wiltord were perhaps more subdued in 2006/07, but Lyon were able to rely on the strength and goalscoring instincts of another member of France's 2006 FIFA World CupTM squad. Having seemingly stepped up a level since Germany, Florent Malouda terrorised Ligue 1 defences all year, racking up goals and assists before eventually being elected player of the season by his peers.
Together they helped the club extend its record run, and no other team in Europe's top leagues can match that achievement, yet it would be foolish to ignore the dark clouds over the Stade Gerland. An early elimination in the UEFA Champions League, defeats to Bordeaux and Marseille in the French League Cup and French Cup respectively and some damaging dressing-room tensions all removed some of the sheen from Lyon's league success. Added to that, even the team's startling efficiency in the transfer market took a blow this year. Neither Brazilian midfielder Fabio Santos nor Czech striker Milan Baros lived up to expectations after arriving in the winter, and both spent most of the following five months warming the bench.
Worse still, key men Malouda, Gregory Coupet, Claudio Cacapa and Eric Abidal could be on their way out in the next few months, while Gerard Houllier has already announced his resignation. After two campaigns with the champions, the former Liverpool manager has decided to move on. "The club's plans are perhaps in need of new momentum and I don't feel capable of starting out on a new cycle," commented the division's coach of the season. He remains confident his former employers will continue to thrive, however. "This is the end of a cycle for the coach, but not for the team," he said. "I'm convinced Lyon will shine in the Champions League. They have to keep plugging away and in the end it will pay off."
Marseille and Toulouse rejoin the elite
The UEFA Champions League is also on everybody's minds in the south of the country. Runners-up behind Lyon, Marseille will be back in the continent's most prestigious competition after a stunning run of form following the winter break. No side boasted a better record in the second half of the season and that sequence of results shot the Mediterranean outfit up the table despite a massive blip in the autumn.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marseille's return to winning ways coincided with the return from injury of Djibril Cisse and Franck Ribery, and the emergence of young midfielder Samir Nasri. Meanwhile, coach Albert Emon marked his first campaign in the dugout by following the club's motto Droit au but (Straight to the goal) to the letter, favouring a spectacular, attacking style of play and regularly fielding five forwards. It was a risky tactic perhaps, but one that clicked thanks to the exertions of tireless defensive midfielder Lorik Cana.
One spot back from Emon's men, Toulouse booked themselves a ticket for the UEFA Champions League qualifying stage on the very last day of the season, a breathtaking round of games that also saw Lens, Bordeaux and Rennes temporarily hold third place. As was so often the case this year,
Elie Baup's charges ultimately came through courtesy of Johan Elmander, the Swedish ace firing three goals past rivals Bordeaux in the decisive match.
A largely unheralded acquisition from Brondby, Elmander wasted little time in carving out a reputation for himself on French soil. Powerful, aggressive and blessed with excellent technique, he registered 11 goals in Ligue 1 this term and inspired Toulouse to attain the upper reaches of Ligue 1. Or perhaps it was Toulouse who inspired him. "I need to be happy and feel trusted to play well," he explained. "I've found a style of play I like here. We move the ball forward quickly and in the space of three passes we're in front of the opposition's goal." After a dream season, Toulouse's first mission must be to keep their talented Swedish international at the Stadium Municipal as a number of bigger clubs hover for his signature.
Year to forget for Nantes and PSG
Behind the leading trio, Rennes, Bordeaux and Sochaux all secured berths in the UEFA Cup, meaning Lens will have to content themselves with the UEFA Intertoto Cup. If that strikes the northerners as an anticlimax, they at least fared better than France's other much-vaunted sides. Capital outfit Paris Saint-Germain finished a disappointing 15th, following a nightmarish campaign in which they flirted with relegation and even occupied last place. Unsure of their fate until late in the day, the Parisians just about staved off disaster under the direction of Paul Le Guen, who replaced outgoing coach Guy Lacombe in January.
No doubt strengthened by that experience, PSG could well bounce back in 2007/08, which is more than can be said of FC Nantes. After 44 consecutive years in the top flight and eight national titles, Les Canaris bid an inglorious farewell to Ligue 1 by ending the season rock bottom. They may be the last side to have worn the crown of champions before Lyon rewrote history, but they will be touring Ligue 2 grounds next term thanks to a flawed recruitment policy, two changes of coach, internal disputes and the arrival of Fabien Barthez, who turned from saviour to scapegoat within a few short weeks.
Joining Nantes in the second tier will be Troyes and Sedan, who often garnered praise for their style of play but were ultimately undone by a lack of experience, particularly at the back.
New and familiar faces
On the individual front, 2006/07 proved a breakthrough campaign for a number of exciting young players. Algerian midfielder Karim Ziani combined superior vision and technique to help FC Sochaux claim the French Cup 70 years after their last trophy, while his compatriot Nadir Belhadj worked wonders at left-back for Sedan. Unable to prevent Les Sangliers from going down, Belhadj nonetheless did enough to attract attention from Lyon, whose colours he will defend next term.
Elsewhere, 19-year-olds Karim Benzema of Lyon and Samir Nasri of Marseille not only seduced fans of the French game but Les Bleus boss Raymond Domenech as well. Called up to face Austria in a friendly this March, the promising pair offered a glimpse of the future when Nasri set Benzema up for the only goal of the game, and they could soon be joined on the international stage by Saint-Etienne's Bafetimbi Gomis. Resigned to filling in for Frederic Piquionne at the start of the season, the 21-year-old striker stepped into the breach when his team-mate joined Monaco and ended up with 10 strikes to his name, as well as earning comparisons with former Ligue 1 star Didier Drogba.
Boasting three goals more than Gomis, Valenciennes forward Steve Savidan fell narrowly short of completing a memorable hat-trick in his first taste of football at this level. Top-scorer in the National division (third flight) two years ago, the 28-year-old then headed the Ligue 2 charts last time out and for a long time looked likely to repeat that feat this season. Of his 13 efforts, he is sure to retain especially fond memories of the four he buried past Fabien Barthez in VAFC's 5-2 victory away to Nantes.
When the curtain fell, however, it was one of Ligue 1's established performers who outscored everyone else. Severely criticised and often left on the bench, Pedro Miguel Pauleta stayed focused on what he does best to plunder a total of 15 goals. Having now struck 133 times in seven campaigns for PSG and Bordeaux, the Portuguese marksman has scored more league goals than any other player currently active in French football.