Nantes and Monaco are alike in many ways. True bastions of French football, both clubs have suffered the disappointment of relegation since 2000. Last summer, however, they both sealed their return to the top tier and went on to start the current season with near-perfect records. Today Nantes find themselves in fifth place, three points behind Monaco, ahead of the sides' clash on 24 November.
One final thread uniting the two clubs, and another French institution that left Ligue 1 for a period only to come back even stronger, is one Jeremy Toulalan: “I currently feel even better than I did before leaving for Spain,” confirmed the Monaco star, who began his career with Nantes before moving to Lyon.
“These last two seasons at Malaga have allowed me to see new things, discover another culture, play a style of football that favours technique over physicality and to keep developing as a player,” Toulalan continued, speaking to FIFA.com. “And then of course there's the ageing process: put simply, I got older and gained a little more experience - like a fine wine!” he concluded, sporting a smile under his greying mane.
But this increasing tint of grey is certainly not down to his team’s results or his own performances. Since the start of the season, both Monaco and Toulalan have been in great form: “It’s true things are going pretty well, on a personal level and for Monaco," he said. “We’re on track to achieve our objective for the season, which was to seal a place in the Champions League. We had a slight blip in the league cup, but on the whole we have to be happy."
Now 30, Toulalan is among the ‘old-guard’ in an extremely young side unerringly geared towards attack, but he still seems to have that same energy of a decade ago. “I think we’re the team that is developing its game the most, even if our last three or four matches make that slightly hard to believe,” he noted. “With the amount of money invested by the people in charge I was expecting this team to be towards to top of the table, but to do so playing such high-quality football is quite surprising.”
Joy at Malaga
Toulalan certainly knows what he is talking about after being in an almost identical situation at Malaga, when that club was splashing the cash. In Spain the defensive midfielder was entrusted with the role of leading Los Boquerones into European competition, taking the responsibility in his stride to help his team seal a place in the UEFA Champions League play-offs.
“I’ve been happy everywhere I’ve played," he commented. "But on an emotional level, it was perhaps at Malaga where I felt the strongest sensations. The club had never been in the Champions League and the fans were desperate for it. We allowed them to experience that and they were certainly grateful. It was magical. The wins over Porto in the Round of 16 and Panathinaikos in the play-offs were exceptional moments."
But despite all of that, the Nantes native has always retained a soft spot for France and its Ligue 1. And this last summer he finalised his return to a league he considers to be “perhaps tougher than Spain in terms of physicality and the amount of defensive work required”.
“In La Liga all of the teams go out aiming to score more goals than the opposition,” he added. “In France, teams set up to avoid conceding. That’s the big difference between the two.”
Displaying great form during his two years in Spain and scoring three times - as many as he got in ten years in France - Toulalan was not the only one to make the switch to France. Also making the trip were the likes of Eric Abidal, Ricardo Carvalho and Radamel Falcao.
"I don't really like the 'star name' tag, although I know that it's part and parcel of my profession," Toulalan noted, whose distinctive appearance, speaking style and charisma have always marked him out as slightly different.
"I don't feel particularly on the fringes. I just think that everyone is free to do as they see fit. For me, this 'freedom' is quite traditional. My daily routine is just like any other person," he concluded in typically reserved fashion.
From Nantes to Monaco, Toulalan has travelled, progressed and matured. Ultimately however, deep down, he has clearly not changed too much.