For the first time in seven years, the title was undecided going into the last day of the season as Lyon (1st, 76 pts) held only a two-point lead over Bordeaux (2nd, 74 pts). [standings and points going into the last game] In fact, the suspense was global, with a "duel à distance" between Nancy (3rd, 60 pts) and Marseille (4th, 59 pts) for third place and the preliminary round of the Champions' League, a three- way race between Lille (5th, 56 pts), St-Étienne (6th, 55 pts), and Rennes (7th, 55 pts) for the other UEFA Cup spot, and another three-way race (of the hair-raising, don't-look-down, vertigo-inducing variety) between Paris Saint-Germain (16th, 40 pts), Toulouse (17th, 39 pts), and Lens (18th, 39 pts) to avoid the last relegation spot.
Ligue 1 has a reputation for being a low-scoring, cagey, boringly tactical league which Lyon invariably win anyway. Well, this time it was going to be massively different, at least with regard to the "low-scoring" tag. Those last ten games produced 43 goals, and with a modicum of research I might even be able to tell you whether it's a record or not, or how it compares with the season's average. Let's just say that it was a hell of a lot better than day 27, in which all of 13 goals were scored and four games ended nil-nil. And the suspense? It was incredible. Let's begin at the top.
Under so much pressure, would Lyon manage to get the draw they needed at Auxerre (15th, 44 pts)? Would they? The country was on the edge of its sofa, and it took Karim Benzema no less than 24 seconds to throw millions of French viewers slumping backwards under the weight of inevitability and earn himself the title of top scorer with his twentieth of the season. Fred, Lyon's Brazilian striker, wrapped it up in the 9th minute, thus making sure that Bordeaux's efforts at Lens would prove entirely futile and that the title would be heading back to the capital of the Rhône region for the seventh consecutive time.
And no one really wants to dwell on that so let's give credit to Bordeaux who, under the tutelage of rookie manager Laurent Blanc, and with a mix of youth (Bellion, Ducasse, Obertan) and experience (Micoud, Jurietti, Ramé), managed to push Lyon almost all the way. In the end, even though Bordeaux finished four points behind, it could be argued that they had a better season than the Champions. Over 36 games against all the other teams, they collected 75 points to Lyon's 73. It was only in the head-to-head that they were undone, beaten home and away by Alain Perrin's men. We will now find out whether Laurent Blanc is as good in the transfer market as he was as a centre-half, but if he can keep hold of his Argentine and Brazilian duo of Cavenaghi and Wendel (27 goals between them) and reinforce an ageing defense, he might put pressure on Lyon again next year. At least, this season's qualification for the Champion's League will give him the funds necessary for such a challenge.
And the suspense? Oh yeah. Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain and Toulouse both scored early, thus making sure Lens's efforts to avoid the drop against Bordeaux would prove entirely futile. And so the club with the large neo-nazi element in their support stays up, while the club with the friendliest, noisiest fans in the country go down, and no one really wants to dwell on that. What Toulouse don't want to dwell on is the embarrasment of starting the season facing Liverpool in the preliminary round of the Champions' League and finishing it escaping relegation by way of a narrow, nervous 2-1 win over Valenciennes. So let's move on.
And yes, I did promise suspense. But there wasn't much of that on offer in the fight for fifth place. As Lille couldn't do better than a draw at Lorient and St-Étienne went on a 4-0 rampage against a desperately out of sorts Monaco (12th, 47 pts), "Les Verts" clinch it and will taste European football again for the first time in 26 years. The last time they travelled abroad, their number 10 was one Michel Platini and their current coach, Laurent Roussey, spearheaded their attack.
So what are we left with? 3rd place, the Champions' League preliminary round and the right to start next season with a heroic defeat against the likes of Arsenal, Barcelona, Juventus, or Liverpool. Marseille and Nancy really did fall over themselves to earn that privilege. Nancy, whose only claim to fame is a couple of domestic cups and bringing a young Michel Platini through their ranks, had been on the podium since day 5 and were unbeaten at home this season. If they could just get a draw at home to Rennes, their young Uruguayan coach, Pablo Correa, would equal the club's best ever finish. All Marseille could do was beat an already relegated Strasbourg at the Stade Vélodrome and hope for a little help in Lorraine.
Amazingly, it came through the unlikely source of Mickaël Pagis, whose goals had helped Marseille clinch a CL spot last season, only to be told his contract would not be renewed. The brace he scored for Rennes on Saturday proved just as important, as the club from Brittany ended Nancy's unbeaten home record, winning 3-2 and handing it over to Marseille on a plate. All the southerners had to do was help themselves. An opponent with nothing to play for. A sixty-thousand stong home support. No injury or suspension worries. How easy can it get?
Marseille duly took an early lead through their Senegalese striker, Mamadou Niang, and then quietly collapsed. Strasbourg scored twice in 20 minutes, handing back to Nancy. Marseille could be forgiven for their slumber. On day 12, they were in 19th place, and the long climb back up under newly appointed coach and ex Belgium international, Éric Gerets, had taken its toll. It took something out of the ordinary to revive them. A couple of minutes before half-time, Niang and the Strasbourg keeper both went for a high ball. The ensuing clash of heads meant play was held for long minutes and the visiting keeper eventually had to go off. His replacement's first intervention, in the third minute of stoppage time, was to bring Djibril Cissé down and give away a penalty. His second intervention was to save it, only to see the rebound hit the ex-Liverpool star in the head and go in. In the fith minute of stoppage time, Samir Nasri rifled in the sweetest left-foot volley from 12 yards to make it 3-2.
With the Nancy boys floundering, and Marseille cruising through the second half on auto-pilot, it looked all set. Until 20 minutes from time, when Strasbourg, who still had nothing to play for but were determined to enjoy themselves, scored again to level at 3-3. Nancy pushed everyone forward in search of an equaliser, but, with a few minutes left on the clock, it was Djibril Cissé who raced on a through ball and, with his 16th goal of a long, long season, sent the Vélodrome faithful into raptures and Marseille into the Champions' League.
In short: Lyon for the title, Bordeaux and Marseille for the CL, Nancy and St-Étienne for UEFA, Metz, Strasbourg and Lens down to Ligue 2, Le Havre, Nantes, and Grenoble coming up to replace them, PSG and Lyon to meet in the final of the Coupe de France next week, and my job is a lot easier than Premcorr's, who does it every week.