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Lyon dump Monaco out of the title race on another crazy night in Ligue 1

“When you play with heart,” Anthony Lopes explained, “sometimes you do stupid things.” The Lyon goalkeeper was speaking after the latest swing of the pendulum in Ligue 1 title race on Sunday night. His statement summed up a night that produced five red cards, five goals and led to Monaco following Lyon in dropping out of the title race. Shocking and joyous in equal measure, a boisterous evening at Stade Louis II epitomised a thrilling season in France that is still a long way from finished despite there being only three rounds of fixtures to come.

Lyon approached the game weary and downtrodden. In a season in which PSG have been repeatedly picked off, losing more home games than in the previous seven seasons combined, Lyon should be leading the charge at the top. Houssem Aouar, Memphis Depay and Moussa Dembélé (initially) stayed at the club last summer, and the midfielder Lucas Paqueta and striker Tino Kadewere were added, giving Rudi Garcia comfortably the second best squad in Ligue 1. They produced some spectacular football in the autumn but, after avoidable recent draws with Marseille, Lens and Reims, they squandered a 2-0 lead over the leaders Lille last weekend and lost 3-2, finally falling out of the title race with four games to play.

Monaco, on the other hand, had no right to be challenging for the title at all. This season was billed as a transitional campaign for the new coach, Niko Kovac, who joined in the summer with the aim of building over the next few years. The club reverted to its trusted method of recruiting a balanced squad consisting of a mixture of experienced quality and burgeoning talents. The Croatian has revitalised Stevan Jovetic, Cesc Fàbregas and, to a lesser extent, Aleksandr Golovin, but a top-six finish was their aim at the start of the campaign.

Nevertheless, Monaco started the weekend just two points behind league leaders Lille after a run in which they had only lost one of their previous 19 league games. Wissam Ben Yedder and Kevin Volland have now scored 35 goals between them; the imposing young midfielders Aurélien Tchouaméni (21) and Youssouf Fofana (22) have routinely bossed Ligue 1 midfields; while the likes of the former Everton man Djibril Sidibé, attacking midfielder Sofiane Diop and Chilean centre-back Guillermo Maripan have all improved markedly under Kovac.

Monaco knew a win would further their ambitions to secure a league and cup double (they play fourth tier Rumilly Vallières in the Coupe de France semi-finals later this month). But defeat would leave their own title hopes in a similar state to Lyon’s. The game was also crucial for Lyon, who needed to beat Monaco to haul them back in the race for Champions League football.

Although Lyon started brightly, it was Monaco who took the lead in the first half through Volland. The match exploded after the interval. Memphis Depay, often criticised by the French media when results have gone against Lyon in recent months, slalomed in from the right to fire a defected equaliser just before the hour.

Thirteen minutes later the Lyon midfielder Maxence Caqueret was dismissed for a second yellow, seemingly giving Monaco a clear advantage. Lyon, however, refused to concede and the centre-back Marcelo climbed commandingly to head his side into the lead just seven minutes later. Monaco’s title bid seemed to be fading until the 85th minute, when Lopes did “something stupid” and flew off his line in a characteristically aggressive fashion to punch away danger, but only succeeded in thumping Monaco substitute Pietro Pellegri across the jaw instead. The goalkeeper was lucky not to be dismissed.

Ben Yedder scored the resulting penalty, dinking the ball into the net to level the scores at 2-2. However, despite having a man advantage for the final quarter of the game, Monaco completely lost their shape and it was Lyon who managed to fashion the winner, the 17-year-old Rayan Cherki coolly firing home after an heroic goalline clearance from Mattia De Sciglio and a spectacular double save from Lopes.

A fierce encounter boiled over at the final whistle as a mass brawl engulfed both sets of players, assorted members of both clubs’ coaching staff and the officials. Both sides received a pair of sendings off: Pellegri and Geubbels for Monaco, and Marcelo and De Sciglio for Lyon. Much like the late scuffle between PSG and Marseille at the start of the season, bans and further recriminations will follow. The Lyon president, Jean-Michel Aulas, went as far as to accuse Geubbels and Pellegri of “assault”.

Garcia had seemed to be on his way out at Lyon after a crushingly disappointing 2021 but, as his president watched on at full-time with tears in his eyes, his job prospects – much like his club’s Champions League ambitions – received a significant boost. “When you are a president with a bit of experience, you have to support the guys when there is disappointment, but there was also hope,” said Aulas. “I want to congratulate the winning coaching, Rudi.”

Monaco, meanwhile, saw their title hopes dashed at the last. With only three games to play, only two of the four title challengers remain. Just a point separates Lille and PSG, while the same margin splits Monaco and Lyon as they chase the final Champions League place. Despite the stupidity at full-time, much like the rest of this thrilling season, “heart” defined this latest twist in the beautiful madness that is Ligue 1 in 2020-21.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results

Show

Bordeaux 1-0 Rennes

Brest 1-4 Nantes

Dijon 1-5 Metz
Lorient 2-0 Angers

Nîmes 2-2 Reims

Montpellier 1-2 St Etienne

Monaco 2-3 Lyon

PSG 2-1 Lens

Lille 2-0 Nice

Marseille 1-1 Strasbourg 

Talking points

When David Guion of Reims and Stéphane Moulin of Angers announced their departures last month, they came as something of a surprise. The same cannot be said for Michel Der Zakarian, who is leaving Montpellier. Although he is known for moulding effective but dull sides, notably at Nantes, Der Zakarian’s Montpellier have instead become Ligue 1’s great entertainers with a swashbuckling counterattacking style. However, the switch in style has not resulted in the European football craved by the club’s demanding owner, Laurent Nicollin – son of the famous Louis. Given the joy his side has brought to the league, Der Zakarian will be missed – not least by the talismanic striker Andy Delort, who said he was “emotional” after the announcement. Given the freewheeling football Der Zakarian has produced, Montpellier’s decision to let him go could yet prove to be a mistake.

Before the pivotal clash in Monaco, PSG were first up of the title chasers this weekend, entertaining fifth-placed Lens. With the game coming between Champions League semi-final ties with Manchester City, Mauricio Pochettino chose to rest Ángel Di María, Marco Verratti, Alessandro Florenzi and Leandro Paredes; while Kylian Mbappé missed out with a bruised calf. Struggling with suspensions, injury and Covid-19 issues, talisman Gaël Kakuta, key forward Florian Sotoca and leading defender Loïc Bade all missed out for Lens who were beaten 2-1 via goals from Neymar and Marquinhos. It was an important hurdle cleared for PSG. As a result, Lille went into their Saturday night encounter with an improving Nice needing a win to remain on top. An early strike from Burak Yilmaz, and the sending off of the Nice right-back Jordan Lotomba just after half-time, allowed Les Dogues to run out comfortable 2-0 winners. Lille face bitter northern rivals Lens next week while PSG host a resurgent Rennes.

Ligue 1 table

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