DAVID SHONFIELD: Testing times for elite French clubs

French football packs up for its two-week winter break tomorrow with its flagship clubs in a mini-crisis. The super-rich are no longer having things entirely their own way.

Financially France has the most skewed league in Europe. Paris Saint-Germain are the only club of significance in one of the richest cities in the world and have the backing of an entire oil-rich state.

Monaco are part of a state within a state, enjoying an unique tax-free status.

Monaco’s tax privileges have frequently put the club at loggerheads with the rest of French football, but the latest tiff concerns another member of the elite, Lyon.

The two clubs have never seen eye to eye and both have outspoken bosses: Vadim Vasilyev at Monaco and Jean-Michel Aulas, the Lyon president, who virtually ran French football for seven years, until Monaco and PSG came into the money.

Aulas — generally known as JMA — is still the most influential of French owners, as opposed to foreign ones, and there has periodically been a suggestion this influence might extend to referees.

Montpellier coach Frederic Hantz was the first to voice his suspicions this season when his team lost 5-1 to Lyon after losing a player to a red card.

“Could French football envisage Lyon losing two home games in a row?” he asked rhetorically, before questioning the choice of match referee.

At the end of October it was the turn of Toulouse to question decisions in favour of Lyon, followed by Bastia.

But after Monaco’s Benjamin Mendy was sent off at the end of the first-half in their 3-1 home defeat by Lyon on Sunday, Vasilyev evidently decided to raise the stakes.

“The result was decided by the officials,” he declared, immediately after the game. “I’m going to say out loud what everyone is thinking under their breath: The referees favour Lyon… There’s no future for football if things carry on in this way.”

Statistics do show Lyon benefited from red cards more often than any other club this season — six times — and they’ve also been awarded more penalties (including one against Monaco, which they missed). However, they have also had 36 cards themselves this season, more than their rivals, including three reds.

“Vasilyev has gone off the rails,” was the response of JMA, who is now considering taking his opposite number to court.

This would be a welcome diversion for PSG, who have ruled Ligue 1 largely unchallenged for the past four seasons, but who currently lie third behind Monaco and leaders Nice.

December has been an embarrassment for the Parisians, with one point from three games.

They need to win, and win well, against Lorient tomorrow night at the Parc des Princes after losing to Guingamp — Brittany’s other top-flight club — on Sunday.

PSG have already lost four times in the league, compared to two defeats during the whole of last season, and are 12 points down compared to last December.

Talismanic players, notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Luiz, have departed, but inevitably the accusing finger is being pointed at their new manager, Unai Emery.

Uniquely successful in Europe with Sevilla, Emery was obviously appointed to carry on that work and “take the club to the next level” in that time-honoured phrase.

As with the value of your investments, however, the next level can be down as well as up, and Emery has not won hearts and minds, starting with a 3-1 defeat by Monaco way back in August.

Slipping to a 2-2 draw in the Champions League against Bulgarian outsiders Ludogorets only confirmed the view the club should have stood by Laurent Blanc.

Ditching the manager as well as leaders on the pitch has left the team rudderless at times, and there is a feeling PSG have retained expensive older players who are not pulling their weight.

Paris are still favourites - “You will see, PSG will be in front come the end,” said Blanc last week.

But, for the moment, Nice and Mario Balotelli are the team to catch.

As Blanc himself commented: “Perhaps it is a bit more interesting now the team no longer dominates the league as some have complained.”


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