Goals remain a problem for many of the top clubs in Ligue 1

By Howard Johnson in Paris
For the first time in many a long moon the top of France’s Ligue 1 table genuinely reflects the hierarchy of the French game. After 25 games, the top three slots were respectively occupied by the country’s three biggest clubs, Lyon, Paris and Marseille. This despite both of the latter clubs having to settle for 0-0 draws against lowlier opponents.

Paris’ visit to Grenoble and Marseille’s home meeting with Le Mans saw disappointing returns for both Paul Le Guen’s and Eric Geret’s teams and valuable points dropped. This will please nobody except Lyon supporters as the results opened up a six-point gap between first and second. And this at a time when people were starting to whisper that there might just be a genuine battle for the title for the first time in donkey’s years.

Of course a lack of goals in the French league is nothing new and has greatly contributed to the ever-increasing popularity of the English Premiership over here. After Paris and Marseille drew their respective blanks the top four clubs in France had managed a combined total of 134 goals this season. In England the top four clubs had already rifled in 174. Even given the fact that the English clubs have played one more league match apiece the difference is still astonishing.

Interestingly enough, though, the top individual goalscorers in the two championships are both French and have scored the same number of goals. Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka has 15 goals to his name, as does Toulouse’s André-Pierre Gignac.

Gignac took a while to settle at the club that currently sits fourth in the championship after avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth last season. He arrived in Toulouse with a big reputation at the start of the 2007-08 campaign after impressing at Lorient. But Gignac’s first season was an unmitigated disaster as he scored just two goals in 19 appearances. Since Swede Johan Elmander’s move to English side Bolton, however, Gignac has blossomed as the club’ first-choice striker and his scoring rate is even more impressive than it might first appear, given that the south-west club has managed just 27 goals in total in the campaign so far.

Considering that the French league also features Lyon striker Karim Benzema, considered the single hottest young striking property in the whole of Europe right now, Gignac has performed extraordinarily well to be top dog – and he’s still only 23 years old.

Oh how Saint-Etienne would love to have a Gignac in their side right now. Traditionally as popular with the French public as Paris and Marseille, “Les Verts” are still in the drop zone despite the best efforts of former Lyon, Marseille and Portsmouth manager Alain Perrin, who took over the reins from Laurent Roussey back in November. They’ve scored just 22 league goals this season and with only 13 games left to play Perrin knows his side is in a real dogfight to preserve top-flight status.

All isn’t lost for Saint-Etienne, though. While Le Havre look dead and buried anchored at the foot of the table, it’s no exaggeration to say that any two of nine clubs could end up slipping through the trap door with them at the end of the season. Things really are that tight down at the bottom of Ligue 1. It would be a brave man indeed who would bet on the clubs that will occupy the last three places on the final day of the campaign.

Of course you’d hope that the situation might encourage the managers of these teams to be more adventurous in their pursuit of priceless wins rather than simply clawing single points from drawn games. But French football culture has long been conservative by nature, so there are no guarantees for supporters in search of goalmouth action that attack will be adopted as the best means of defence.