French Ligue 1 hits and misses
Remi Garde has made a huge impression at Lyon despite limited transfer spending
PSG's versatile Mathieu Bodmer has been a revelation in a deep-lying midfield role
English midfielder Joe Cole has found himself well suited to Ligue 1's style
Taking a look at the biggest surprises and disappointments in France so far this season:
1. Remi Garde. The fact that this season's Lyon coach was not Claude Puel gave Garde, his successor, a huge advantage and he has done impressively in his first season in charge. Okay, so Lyon may only be one point better off than they were at this stage of last season, but Garde has spent next-to-nothing (less than €5M on Bakary Kone and Gueida Fofana); endured an injury crisis that ruled out centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Cris, and sidelined its best player Lisandro Lopez; and handed game-time to a group of youngsters he coached at the academy, among them Clement Grenier, Alex Lacazette and Samuel Umtiti, that bodes well for Lyon's future. Lyon is in the League Cup final, is joint-third in the race for the Champions League places, and has a foot in the Champions League quarterfinals: given it spent €80M ($105M) less than Paris Saint-Germain, Garde can consider his first seven months in charge a success.
2. Mathieu Bodmer. Bodmer has been the biggest beneficiary of Carlo Ancelotti's arrival as Paris Saint-Germain coach. At previous clubs Lyon and Lille, he has played as center back, central midfield and as a No. 10, and has suffered for his versatility. Ancelotti has turned him into a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-3-2-1 system and has already compared him to Andrea Pirlo. "Bodmer is technically superb, mentally strong and plays with his head up," former teammate Greogry Coupet told Le 10 Sport. Ancelotti has also made Bodmer his vice-captain: at 29, he may just have found his best position.
3. Joe Cole. The excitement of Cole's debut, when he jinked past three Saint-Etienne defenders and set up Ludo Obraniak to score (leading to Obraniak to shout at teammates, "I'm playing with Joe Cole, it's Joe Cole!") may have receded, but Cole's impact has been a positive one. He scores goals (eight so far, his target is 15), rarely has a poor match and his cheerful outlook and hardworking attitude is appreciated by his teammates and coach. "He is a great guy to have around, the younger ones can learn a lot from seeing him in action," Lille captain Rio Mavuba told Canal Plus. It's also been a positive experience for Cole, who is persevering with the language -- "it's been harder than I thought," he said -- and has learned a few things himself: tactically, from coach Rudi Garcia and sartorially from his teammates. "They wear crazy underwear for matches here," Cole told France Football. "Pink, orange, green, fluorescent -- in England, that would get thrown away but here, they have a sense of humor."
4. Marseille's dynamic duo. At the start of last season, Loic Remy and Mathieu Valbuena were competing for the same right-sided attacking midfield spot but now, the pair can barely be separated. Remy is Marseille's top scorer with nine goals -- no player has scored more headers in Europe's top leagues -- while Valbuena leads the assists-chart with 10, five of which have been for Remy. "I know how he plays, when and where he wants the ball. I'd say on the pitch we understand each other perfectly," Valbuena told France Football. "Loic is a good guy, he's chilled and kind. We used to fight for a place but now we're cool." Remy is guaranteed a place in France's Euro 2012 squad and Valbuena, thanks to his unique partnership with the striker, is looking good for a place too.
5. The next generation. Joe Cole told Canal Plus that in every match, "there are at least two or three young players that really impress me." The latest that the Englishman faced was center back Kurt Zouma, 17 years old and having a breakout season at Saint Etienne. Zouma's rise has come too early for senior international recognition but that might not be the case for Montpellier's exciting U-21 forward Remy Cabella, who has scored four goals in his last seven games for the title contenders; or for Dijon's Benjamin Corgnet, who could be 2012's answer to Franck Ribery, who emerged midway through the 2005-06 season and played a starring role in helping Les Bleus reach the World Cup final. Corgnet, 24, has come late to Ligue 1 but wasted no time in impressing: eight goals from out wide as Dijon battle for safety. As his coach Patrice Carteron put it: "If he played for another club, he'd already be in the France team."
1. Andre-Pierre Gignac. It's hard to know where to start with Gignac, who scored 24 goals to finish Ligue 1's top scorer in 2008-09 but since then has never managed to reach even 10 goals. Last summer he agreed with coach Didier Deschamps, on condition of confidentiality, to attend a spa in Merano, Italy, to lose weight, but the news leaked, much to his displeasure. With one goal in 13 appearances this season, his situation came to a head before Marseille's Matchday Five clash against Olympiakos last November. Named on the bench again, Gignac threw a water bottle against the wall, and swore, loudly and offensively, at Deschamps. "The dressing-room walls trembled and the players were shocked by the intensity of the exchange," wrote L'Equipe. He then refused to apologize and, in front of the squad, accused Deschamps of putting on poor training-sessions, being slack with his tactics, and manipulative with his players. Marseille wanted to sell him last January, but a groin injury left him on the sidelines. Instead, it recalled Brandao from his loan period in Brazil, and his three goals in five games emphasizes just how far Gignac's stock has fallen.
2. Sochaux. The problem with overachieving is that unless all elements remain in place, it's hard to replicate that success again, and so it's proved for Sochaux, who surprised everyone by finishing fifth last season. The club kept hold of its star players: Marvin Martin ended the campaign as a France international, while Ryad Boudebouz, Modibo Maiga and Kevin Anin all stayed. But the coach didn't: Francis Gillot upgraded to Bordeaux and the new man, Mecha Bazdarevic, has struggled in the job. His authority was undermined when Maiga and Anin went on strike to get moves in August (they failed and were soon back in the side, though Anin joined Nice in January) while Martin is counting time until he moves, possibly to Lille to replace Eden Hazard, this summer. Meanwhile Sochaux are bottom of the table with the only consolation that seven teams are within four points of it.
3. Yoann Gourcuff. Lyon's record signing cost €22M ($29M) in August 2010 and president Jean-Michel Aulas rejected Arsenal's efforts to sign him on loan last summer. But how Aulas plans to recoup any of that fee remains a mystery: Gourcuff blamed Claude Puel's defensive approach for last season's disappointment and this year, with Remi Garde in charge, an ankle operation kept Gourcuff out for five months but since his return, has looked a shadow of the player that inspired Bordeaux to the 2009 Ligue 1 title. "The problem is mainly psychological," wrote Le Journal du Dimanche last October. "Is he too sensitive for this cruel game? Those close to him say he lives in fear of judgment by the public and the media ... He feels marginalized, isolated and needs to be defended." There was no move in January but you get the sense that if Gourcuff is ever to find form again, it will have to be away from Lyon.
4. Laurent Fournier. It's hard not to feel sorry for Fournier, whose last spell as a Ligue 1 coach ended when Paris Saint-Germain sacked him in December 2005 after a League Cup quarterfinal defeat to Toulouse, with the team in sixth place and only one point off second. Fournier replaced Jean Fernandez, the out-of-contract coach (now fighting relegation with Nancy) who took Auxerre to an unlikely Champions League campaign with a third-place finish in 2010, but has suffered from the sale of Jean-Pascal Mignot and four key players -- Olivier Sorin, Cedric Hengbart, Stephane Grichting and Delvin N'Dinga -- losing form. Last month's home defeat to Nancy saw some of the season's most disturbing scenes: Auxerre's normally mild-mannered supporters trying to attack Fournier's dugout mid-match. Auxerre president Gerard Bourgoin has backed Fournier but a tough run-in might cause problems for the team that has never been relegated in its 32 years in the top flight.
5. Nicolas Douchez/ Ireneusz Jelen. It's hard to say which of these summer signings has had it worse: Douchez, the former Rennes goalkeeper who saw Salvatore Sirigu join Paris Saint-Germain one week after he arrived, or Jelen, signed as forward backup for Lille but so poor when called upon that the champions promptly signed Nolan Roux from Brest in January. Both are decent players -- Douchez in particular could hold down a number one spot at a top-four French club -- but might need to move again to kick-start their careers. That might come too late for Jelen's international hopes: he has slipped out of the reckoning for the Poland squad ahead of Euro 2012.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.