By Paul Grant
First a quick resume of what the Ligue 1 table is looking like at the top. Marseille have taken first, and won’t be giving it up, it’s a done deal. Lille is at number two with 67 pts, followed by Auxerre at three, also with 67 points, and Lyon, still one match behind because of the Champions League schedule, is at position four with 65 points.
Now, I love Olympique Lyonnais, it’s a team that is a pleasure to support because they are not overwhelmingly dependable, but get enough wins to maintain a smashing good season of ups and downs. In fact, its true that I almost packed it in and headed to the church in my village to test out one of these prayer things, asking that should, as Eamon Dunphy might call him, the Good Pro exist, would he mind giving Lyon a helping hand to usher them into the Champions League finals…Guess the Good Pro supports Bayern, funny considering the church is in Rhone Alpes. Perhaps Benedict XVI already put in a word. In any case, all of this is to say that I was very confused Wednesday night in the face of the OL-AJ Auxerre match.
Photo from fOTOGLIF
But its worth going back a week when AJA faced off against this years Ligue 1 champions Olympique Marseille. There was no confusion for me there: Marseille clearly deserve the title, they were ferocious this year with a band of incredible but flawed superheroes (Brandao, Ben Arfa, Taiwo, Niang) but in general its not much fun endorsing shoe-ins. At some point it just becomes tedious to watch a team consistently win. But watching the Ajaistes (no stranger to consistent wins, and have lost only one—against OL—of their last 15 games) mount their campaign this season has been an exhilarating ride. To see players like Ireneusz Jelen, Dennis ”le président” Oliech and Daniel Niculae really come to the fore and make names for themselves is the kind of stuff that keeps football interesting in the face of an increasingly costly Ronaldo/Messi/Rooney-saturated environment. And it is interesting because of the doubt: it’s hard to believe they can really keep it up. But even the tie against Marseille, for which they were soundly lambasted for not winning(!?!), felt like a victory when placed in the appropriate context. The saddest part is the blind expectation that is at the heart of so much competitive sports punditry. After the tie with Marseille B. Ro wrote on the France Football website:
“It should have been the match of the season, the shock at the top between the leader and its heir apparent. A real combat in two 45 minute rounds…Friday’s tie (0-0) between Auxerre and Marseille left us hungry. If OM were able to maintain their 5 point lead over AJA, its really the lack of inspiration, even creativity, of Jean Fernandez’s men that was surprising. The Bourguignons had the occasion the get within two points of their host if they had one. They had neither the nerve, nor the desire. Too bad.”
If this guy is still hungry after that match, then he’s either bulimic or has a parasite…Has he never seen Rocky or The Bad News Bears? Obviously its about winning, but there are other criteria like strategy, effort, sportsmanship and enjoyment. This is a team that for that last two seasons hovered around 10-16 on the Ligue 1 table, and here they are at the second position, quite frankly wreaking havoc. I mean Jelen was unstoppable against Marseille, and if he couldn’t get the ball in the net, he threw himself in instead. That is giving it your all, in fact that is Dunphy’s the Good Pro.
So if they didn’t take first anyone with an appreciation for “the beautiful game” cannot help but be thrilled by the effort and endurance of a team not slated to reach these heights this season. The problem now is after the loss against OL (for which I remain confused), it is not only sure that AJA will not take the top, it is also no longer a given that it will take second (which it has admirably held for a number of weeks) nor third. Seems a trip back to that church might be in order. Good Pro, I’ve got another Champions League request.