With only three rounds of matches to go before the French season reaches its thrilling conclusion, a lot has happened over the past six weeks in Ligue 1. Paris Saint-Germain and Montpellier are battling it out at the top of the table with la Paillade holding a slender three-point lead, whilst Lille look to have cemented pole position for third UEFA Champions League spot and the potential ten team battle to avoid relegation intensifies.
Over the course of this season, a number of new reputations have been forged and previously unheard of stars have emerged. Now with the season rapidly nearing the final stretch, these largely unheralded names are being linked with prospective moves abroad and of course, many of them are tipped to head across the Channel to play in the Premier League.
Here's five of the best...
Did. You. See. That. Goal. Of course for anybody who has not heard about it, the young Moroccan scored a sensational, acrobatic effort against Marseille a fortnight ago that deserves to be French football's goal of the season. The ingenuity to not only visualise the goal but then also having the audacity to attempt it with such little space should be applauded, but the fact he finished it as well was astonishing.
For months Younes Belhanda has been one of French football's best kept secrets. But now thanks to a season of sublime performances coupled with Montpellier's unstoppable rise to the summit of Ligue 1, the diminutive attacking midfielder has been thrust into the limelight ahead of time. Hot property on the transfer market following Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's kind words about him last month, MHSC know they must get Champions League football to ensure that they can keep this precocious talent.
Technically flawless and brilliantly creative, Belhanda's vision and pinpoint accuracy as well as his fantastic distribution has made him this season's outstanding surprise star. So far this year he has 12 goals and four assists to his name and has played a massive part in Montpellier's unexpected title push. Still prone to making naive decisions but improving with every passing game, the 22-year old has been compared to Eden Hazard, Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri by his peers at the club. Arsenal could be tempted to step up their pursuit should MHSC miss out on the title and Champions League football, although this looks unlikely.
Toulouse have been one of Ligue 1's surprise packages this year coming from eight place last season to seriously challenge for a place in next season's Champions League. Although they do not score many goals, le Tefece have perfected the art of mixing a stingy defence with a creative midfield under Alain Casanova this year and as a result TFC have become one of French football's most consistent sides.
A large part of this success has been Tunisian central defender Aymen Abdennour who was signed from l'Etoile du Sahel in the Tunisian top flight amidst little fanfare last summer despite a previous spell with Werder Bremen. What has followed since has been remarkable. The 22-year old has become an integral part of the meanest defensive unit in the league (only 31 goals conceded in 35 games) and is now attracting some of Europe's biggest clubs.
Speaking in a recent interview he said: "There were other French Portuguese and German teams looking at me. But I spoke with my agent a lot and he told me: 'Toulouse is a good club for young players, a young club with great technical staff'. So I came here and I am happy with my choice."
A formidable opponent in matches and a massive obstacle in one-on-ones given his size, Abdennour has quickly become the rock at the heart of the TFC defence. Still young but impressively strong and agile, he has huge potential and can further develop his already well-rounded game in the next few years. Thanks to this season's fantastic progress Arsenal and Chelsea have already been linked with bids and apparently Everton boss David Moyes is a keen admirer of his talents having seemingly given up on Lorient's Bruno Ecuele Manga.
Another lesser-known name to those unfamiliar to Ligue 1 who was an unknown quantity at the start of the year is Evian's Daniel Wass. The Denmark international currently on loan at Evian from Portuguese giants Benfica is a defender by nature but has been deployed in midfield by ETGFC's managers Bernard Casoni and Pablo Correa. It has paid dividends for the Ligue 1 newcomers who currently sit ninth. Three goals and one assist in 25 games has seen Wass' stock rise massively and he is quickly becoming recognized as one of French football's hottest properties.
Playing at right midfield with an ability to switch flanks if necessary, the Dane's best quality is his ability to perfectly time his runs behind opposition defences. Only 22-years-old, it was expected that Wass would return to Benfica at the end of the season where he is yet to play a game but given his form, a number of other clubs could be tempted to give him that chance and make the Lisbon giants an offer they cannot refuse.Teams across Europe are already said to be monitoring his progress and some of France's leading sides will no doubt have his name written down as they look to rebuild their sides over the summer. The youngster himself though has not ruled out staying in Annecy: "This is a very good league, one of the top five in Europe and perhaps even the world. Stay another season? Yes, it's possible. I would even say I would like to stay. We will see what happens in the summer."
One of the star players so far this season has been Auxerre's Alain Traore. Although his form has tailed off in the second half of the season which has coincided with l'AJA's drastic loss of form, the attacking midfielder has made good on the early season challenge to provide an alternative to Congolese Delvin N'Dinga who was expected to leave.
With nine goals and two assists in 24 games Traore has been Auxerre's star man, although that has not stopped them plummeting to the foot of the table. With the club looking favourites to drop out of the top flight for the first time in over two decades, the Burkinabe international can be confident he will find a new club quite easily rather than risking playing in Ligue 2.
Speaking recently 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. That is what I have tried to do."
Traore's hot early form has tailed off as Auxerre continue to flounder but the player's stock remains high following his electric start to the season. A thumping effort against Ajaccio early in the season demonstrated 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 24-year-old, not to mention Alan Pardew, who is also reported to be keen on him.
Another Toulouse starlet rounds off the list with Etienne Capoue having made a name for himself in Ligue 1 over the last ten months. Currently in his fifth season with le Tefece, the midfielder has rapidly become a key player and recently received the highest praise when coach Alain Casanova dubbed the 23-year old "the greatest player the club has seen in the last 20 years".
Normally playing as a defensive midfielder, he was surprisingly prolific at the start of the season using his ability to push forward at the right times and find himself in space in the opposition's penalty area. Although that soon died down, he still has three goals and two assists in 30 appearances to his name. His style of play has been well-refined and he is now one of the country's best holding midfielders. 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.
One of his greatest assets is his versatility, not just in the positions he can play but the skills he has that can be transferred to suit whichever role his manager asks him to fulfil. This season has seen him play in central defence, central midfield and as TFC's midfield anchor. There are not many midfielders in European football who possess such a complete package and it is no surprise that links to Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and most recently Arsenal have begun to surface.
Arsene Wenger has been heavily linked with a move for fellow Frenchman Yann M'Vila from Rennes; however the 21-year old will command a huge fee (€25-30 million). It is rare that Wenger pays that much for just one player so Capoue would be a much cheaper option and, in truth, is in no way inferior to M'Vila. In fact, should the Rennes man not make it to Euro 2012 for any reason it could be Capoue who takes his place. Although not yet an international, it is surely a matter of time before the TFC man makes his breakthrough. Sources close to me indicate that Wenger's interest in Capoue is very real, so Gunners fans watch this space...