Of the biggest European soccer leagues, France’s Ligue 1 is certainly the least loved. But while the other big continental leagues will be won by the same old teams, France has an actual title race going on, with three teams in the mix as the season begins to wind down — making it the most exciting of the European leagues.
France’s status as one of the so-called Big Five leagues depends more on history than recent results. As of last year, France had even dropped behind Portugal in the UEFA rankings. The French have since regained fifth place, but European soccer lately has felt far more like a Big Four than a Big Five.
Lately, the beneficiary of the league’s slide has been Paris Saint-Germain, which has won the past four Ligue 1 championships. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund purchased the team in 2011 and pumped it full of untold amounts of cash, leading to some uncompetitive seasons — topped off by 2015-16, when it won the league title by an astonishing 31 points.
At the moment, though, PSG, which was focused more on European competition than Ligue 1, is right in the middle of the title pack, tied for second and three points behind the league leaders. It’s impossible to tell whether the club’s dramatic exit from the Champions League, in which it led Barcelona 4-0 after the first leg but lost the return leg 6-1, will torpedo the team’s confidence or sharpen its focus.
Currently leading the league is Monaco, which once appeared set to become the financial counterweight to PSG. However, after a few years of ridiculous player purchases by the club’s Russian billionaire owner, Monaco concluded that the future lay in youth development, not in creating a cash-soaked mini-Real Madrid on the Mediterranean. Manager Leonardo Jardim has led his youthful squad to an astonishing 82 goals in the league this year, headlined by 16 from Radamel Falcao, the one holdover from the spending spree, and is hoping to outscore everyone to a first French title in 17 years.
The real interloper, though, is Nice, the team that nobody expected. Les Aiglons (the Eaglets) haven’t won a Ligue 1 title since 1959 and have spent most of the years since then yo-yoing between the first and second divisions. Most were shocked to see Nice climb to fourth last season. After the team lost its coach and best player in the offseason, nobody gave it a chance to return to the European spots this year. But the acquisition of Italian striker Mario Balotelli — who is usually referred to as “mercurial” if you’re feeling charitable, “completely insane” if you aren’t — gave the team a shot in the arm, and Nice is still tied for second.
Balotelli is suspended, again, at the moment, but if he can stay on the field for the rest of the season, Nice will have a chance to pull off an unlikely victory. Regardless, the French title race is shaping up to be the most entertaining in Europe.