French correspondent Jonathan Johnson reflects on the start of the season in Ligue 1 and selects his leading lights thus far. Joe Cole gets a mention as an also-ran but doesn't quite make our man's top five.
By Jonathan Johnson - @Jon_LeGossip
Last Updated: 06/10/11 6:48am
Ligue 1 is now six weeks into the new campaign and very much living up to its reputation as a league on the rise. Already it has already thrown up some shocks and surprises at both ends of the table. Montpellier who were pre-season candidates to face a relegation battle lead the way ahead of Rennes whilst Lyon have also enjoyed a strong start to the campaign despite being expected to struggle to maintain a UEFA Champions League berth. Marseille, meanwhile, have endured a disastrous start at the foot of the table.
The first few weeks of the season have witnessed some fantastic goals, brilliant individual performances and some surprise names coming to the fore, but as is so often said of Ligue 1: expect the unexpected.
Top five stars so far...
The star player so far this season is without a doubt Auxerre's Alain Traore. A lot of the talk surrounding AJA's pre-season was of whether they could keep midfield powerhouse Delvin N'Dinga at the club but Traore has risen to the challenge of proving there is life after the Congolese international by scoring five goals in his first six games, already equalling his total for the whole of last season. The Burkinabe attacking midfielder now finds himself paired with N'Dinga after his proposed move to Lyon fell through and Traore is delighted with how his campaign has started.
Speaking to the Ligue 1 official website he said: "This season I was in the starting line-up right from the off. The coach said to me that if I was to take the step up to the next level, I needed to impose myself on the field, and become a leader in the dressing room.
"We want to achieve something, whether it be to win a cup or, as the president has said he wants to finish in the top three in the league. We have the quality, we have a good squad, we play good football, so why not?"
An ambitious target perhaps, but Traore's recent form suggests that Auxerre could find themselves higher than their current ninth placed position if the team find some consistency and the player's hot streak continues. None of his five goals so far have been conventional and his thumping effort against Ajaccio a fortnight ago demonstrates exactly why Manchester United almost snapped him up before he joined the Bergundy outfit in 2006. Any more performances like this and Sir Alex Ferguson will be taking a second look at the 22 year-old, not to mention the rest of Europe.
It is impossible to read, watch or hear anything about French football without finding some reference to Pastore lately. The Argentine has lit up the Parc des Princes and Ligue 1 since making his debut in late August amidst much fanfare but the playmaker is currently proving that some players really are worthy of the hype that surrounds them. So far having demonstrated his sublime talent with an array of deft touches, clever flicks, crowd-pleasing bamboozling of defenders and exceptionally well-taken goals, Pastore is at times dragging PSG up the table.
It would be unfair to say that he is the only reason that the capital club currently find themselves within touching distance of early leaders Lyon because other big-money summer signings such as Kevin Gameiro and Jeremy Menez in particular have contributed well and last season's star man Nene has also chipped in with a few goals. Les Rouges et Bleu have gelled well going forward and despite leaving a bit to be desired at the back, Pastore has demonstrated through his impact on the side exactly why Chelsea were prepared to challenge PSG for his €42million signature.
Witness his recent goals against Brest and Evian and it is easy to see why so many Parisien fans are excited about their team's potential this season. The player however, is not getting carried away just yet.
Speaking to the club's official magazine he said: "I am adapting very well and have enjoyed my first few games. The recent matches have been great for us and we are already finding some form. Training for me everyday with such technical players like Jeremy [Menez], Kevin [Gameiro] and Nene is a dream. We are yet to show the side's true capabilities though."
With PSG currently enjoying a seven match unbeaten run spanning all competitions, the early season pressure on manager Antoine Kombouare has dissipated slightly and the team have recently threatened to pull out of third gear and give a demonstration of their new capabilities with some fine football. With new signings now finding their feet and Pastore pulling the strings from midfield, the capital club will have first place in their sights as their first real test of the season against Lyon at home looms large early next month.
If there is one player capable of putting Javier Pastore in the shade then it is Lille's electric Belgian maestro Eden Hazard. After enduring a relatively unspectacular start to the season, Les Dogues' star man has burst into life over the past month or so. A breathtaking performance against Saint-Etienne where he showed glimpses of his potential link-up capabilities alongside new signing Joe Cole, as well as his famous lightning pace, dead-eye in front of goal and lethal efficiency saw him bag two goals in a man-of-the-match performance.
Chased by Arsenal amongst others during the summer, the talented playmaker opted to stay with Lille to experience Champions League football whilst continuing his rapid development as one of Europe's most promising youngsters and so far the decision is paying off. The 20 year-old is in great form with four goals in six games and seems to have struck up an instant understanding with Cole on and off the pitch. H is also benefitting from the club's shrewd transfer dealings this summer that have rebuilt the team around him after the departures of a number of key players. He is also happy to still be at Lille and is excited about the club's upcoming Champions League campaign.
Speaking to France Football he said: "I am feeling very good so far this season and I am happy to be playing in the Champions League because usually I just watch it on TV. Hopefully this can continue in the Champions League."If he does manage to carry his scintillating league form into Europe with him then Arsene Wenger will be in for a tough time trying to prise him away from Lille as Europe's biggest eyes will trained on him.
A more surprising candidate who has enjoyed a strong start to the season is Lyon's Michel Bastos. Expected to leave the club this summer, the Brazilian winger was linked with a move to Tottenham and Juventus after appearing to have no future at Stade Gerland. However, he dug his heels in to stay in France and has so far rewarded Remi Garde's faith in him with some strong domestic and European performances.
The samba star has shown his quality on the left side in recent weeks with some sensational displays of pace, power and skill and his expert crossing has laid on a number of goals for Bafetimbi Gomis and Lisandro Lopez. Capable of dropping the ball onto a pinhead whilst in full-flight, the Brazilian has begun to win back some of the fans who he alienated this summer during his transfer saga and now plays an important role in l'OL's new-look midfield.
Having already contributed three assists and one goal in seven starts the player could be set to enjoy his best season yet in France and with his future now settled, he is intent on winning a new deal at the club.
An unexpected name that has impressed greatly so far this campaign is Toulouse's Etienne Capoue. Le Tefece are currently riding high in Ligue 1 and sit in fifth place after six matches thanks largely to the midfielder's three goals in six games, where each one has been a match winner. After a summer of strong recruitment by manager Alain Casanova, the club have been in good form and even led the league at one point despite having a number of first choice stars unavailable. With these players now returning, the former Arsenal and Fenerbahce target will be looking to continue his sparkling start to the season and help Toulouse maintain an unlikely top five spot going into the winter.
Normally playing as a defensive midfieder, he has been surprisingly prolific so far this season using his ability to push forward at the right times and find himself in space in the opposition's penalty area to help finish the chances the side are creating. Tenacious and combative in the tackle but remarkably skilful with the ball at his feet, Capoue is carving out a reputation for himself as Toulouse's talisman.
An international at every youth level for France, he has yet to be called up to Les Bleus' squad under Laurent Blanc but in this sort of form it is only a matter of time and Toulouse's midfield of Franck Tabanou, Moussa Sissoko, Paulo Machado and Capoue could provide a number of exciting new prospects to the international stage this season.
Although the five stars that I have selected this month have done very well and deserve their recognition, a number of other players have made big impacts and are worthy of note for their industry so far this campaign. Maxime Gonalons at Lyon has done fantastically well to fill the void left by Jeremy Toulalan who departed for Malaga earlier this summer. His seamless introduction to the first team has coincided with a upturn in form for Les Gones and many media outlets in France are currently touting him for an international call-up soon. Lucho Gonzalez of Marseille, who was subject of a failed transfer bid from Arsenal this summer, is another player who almost made the cut. He has been the one bright light in a poor start to the season for Les Phoceens and some of his performances are reminiscent of the sort of play l'OM fans saw from him in 2009/2010 when he was voted player of the season.
Lille's right-back Mathieu Debuchy has also enjoyed a strong start to the season and was unlucky to narrowly miss a call-up to the France squad for their recent European Championship qualifiers. Mr dependable at the back, Debuchy has added some consistent goalscoring to his impressive repertoire with two goals in six games. Montpellier are this season's surprise package, as they were in 2009/2010, and currently lead the table. This has been down to no individual but the team's hard work ethic and sense of familiarity that manager Rene Girard has installed in them. Backup goalkeeper Laurent Pionnier, striker Olivier Giroud and midfielder Geoffrey Dernis have all been impressive so far this season but it is la Paillade's teamwork and strong defence that has won them many admirers so far this term.
Finally plenty of English fans will be eager to hear how Joe Cole is faring since his switch to Ligue 1. He has enjoyed an encouraging start to his career in France having been involved in three matches, contributing one assist so far. His debut against Saint-Etienne was memorable for his slaloming run that took him past five defenders before cutting it back to Ludovic Obraniak to fire home and complete a 3-2 victory having trailed 0-2. The Englishman has made an instant impact on Lille's fans and Premier League observers will have noted that his flying assist had more an air of the "old Joe Cole" about it. It was a reminder of just how technically brilliant the 29-year-old is and it was like looking back in time to when he played for West Ham or in his early days at Chelsea. Fitting in well with the squad and happy to consider staying in France past his loan, the move has reinvigorated the player and as he seeks to regain is match fitness, Ligue 1 has arguably yet to see the best of Mr Cole.