Entertainers Lille earn just desserts

Attacking football won out in Ligue 1 this year as champions Lille brought their spectacular style of play to bear on a division often seen as overly defensive. Les Dogues kept supporters entertained as they bore down on their first championship crown in 57 years, the longest period of time between titles in French football history.

Less consistent than last season, Marseille were unable to repeat their feats of 2009/10 but can at least console themselves with a place in the UEFA Champions League group stage after finishing second. Behind the outgoing champions, Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain contested a fierce tussle to secure third spot, which was ultimately claimed by Claude Puel’s side.

Competition was similarly intense at the bottom of the standings, with two monuments of the French game unable to save themselves from the drop. FIFA.com looks back over a fascinating campaign in Ligue 1.

The champions
‘Droit au but’ (Straight to the goal) may be Marseille’s club motto, but it could easily have been tailor-made for Lille this season. The northern outfit won numerous admirers for their adventurous approach last term without reaping any rewards, and they carried on in the same vein after the summer. Applying a similar philosophy and boasting almost the same set of players, Lille held off their rivals in real style to wrap the title up with time to spare.

Coach Rudi Garcia must take much of the credit for the triumph, having modelled his 4-3-3 formation on Barcelona and used it to similarly devastating effect. On the pitch, Eden Hazard emerged as the team’s true leader at just 20 years of age, and his contributions proved not just spectacular but relentlessly effective. Moussa Sow played a full part too, helping himself to 25 goals in his first season at the club, while Côte d'Ivoire winger Gervinho sparkled once again and captain Rio Mavuba held everything together in midfield. So impressive were Lille, in fact, that they added the French Cup title for good measure.

European places
Out of sorts at the start of the campaign, Marseille never really settled into the rhythm that took them over the line in first spot last term. With Lucho Gonzalez unable to find top form and Andre-Pierre Gignac lacking his usual golden touch in front of goal, OM’s senior players failed to shine, putting the onus on promising youngsters such as Andre Ayew and Loic Remy to get them out of trouble.

For Lyon, it was a campaign to forget, though the club could let out a sigh of collective relief after the last ball was kicked. Les Gones had to wait until the last match of 2010/11 to secure third place and a Champions League play-off berth, meaning they will return to Europe’s premier club competition for a 12th consecutive season. That they escaped disappointment owes much to the exploits of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and the winning mentality of Lisandro Lopez, who hit form at just the right time.

In fourth, Paris Saint-Germain proved incapable of keeping up their momentum from the early part of the season, when Nene was a dynamic presence. The capital club eventually began slipping away as their participation in various cup tournaments took a toll, and they could face a similar conundrum next year as they return to the UEFA Europa League. Sochaux and Rennes will be joining them after they finished fifth and sixth respectively, both sides deserving their place for their solid and promising campaigns.

Also of note
Supporting one of France’s leading lights can often be a trying experience, and so it proved again this year, even if Marseille, Lyon and PSG were able to save face at the end. Their fellow big guns fared less well and it was an especially difficult season for Bordeaux, champions as recently as 2008/09. Stuck in mid-table for long periods, they never looked likely to trouble the high-flyers and came in as low as seventh. As for Auxerre, they could not build on their excellent showing last time out and just about escaped relegation on the final day.

Monaco failed to pull clear, on the other hand, and their 2,000th outing in the elite ended with a 2-0 loss to Lyon that spelled demotion to Ligue 2 for the first time since 1977. Despite their always fervent support, former giants Lens will spend next season in the second tier as well.

The big names
Entertaining, effective and decisive, Eden Hazard and Gervinho thrilled the Lille faithful this term, but it was prolific forward Moussa Sow who profited most from their work going forward. The Senegalese international topped the scoring charts with 25 strikes, winning his private duel with Lorient marksman Kevin Gameiro, who signed off with 22.

Although Nene practically dragged PSG into the upper echelons in the opening months of the season, his defensive colleague Mamadou Sakho put in consistently eye-catching performances from start to finish, earning himself the title of Best Young Player in the process. That honour could equally have gone to Marseille’s explosive attacking midfielder Andre Ayew or Sochaux youngster Marvin Martin, whose 17 assists helped his club book their European ticket and recently brought him a first France call-up.

Ups and downs
Arles-Avignon are set to return to Ligue 2 only a year after sealing promotion, and will get to grips with their new surroundings along with Lens and Monaco. Travelling in the opposite direction will be Ligue 2 champions Evian-Thonon, the newcomers climbing a division for the second year in succession to continue their astonishing ascent. Corsican outfit Ajaccio are likewise on the move and will be rediscovering the elite after five years away, while Dijon will look to 23-goal Uruguayan striker Sebastian Ribas to ease the adaptation process.

The stat
– A record seven sides headed into the last round of action desperate to avoid the one remaining place in the drop zone. Nancy, Brest, Valenciennes, Caen, Nice, Auxerre and Monaco all possessed between 44 and 46 points ahead of the weekend, with Monaco ultimately falling through the trap door.

At a glance
Top six
1 - Lille, 76 points (Champions League)
2 - Marseille, 68 (Champions League)
3 - Lyon, 64 (Champions League play-offs)
4 - PSG, 60 (Europa League)
5 - Sochaux, 58 (Europa League)
6 - Rennes, 56 (Europa League)

Top scorers
1 - Moussa Sow (Lille), 25 goals
2 - Kevin Gameiro (Lorient), 22
3 - Lisandro Lopez (Lyon), Gregory Pujol (Valenciennes), Youssef El-Arabi (Caen), 17