PARIS (AP) - Paris Saint-Germain has not been as ruthlessly dominant as last season but the defending champion is again enjoying a comfortable lead at the winter break thanks to its inconsistent rivals.
PSG has played 18 of 38 matches - meaning it has one game in hand on most teams - but its three defeats so far are three more than at the same point last year and equal to the entire previous season.
Why has this made little difference? Second-place Marseille left it late to get going, and Lyon appears incapable of maintaining good form over long spells. Despite taking 19 points from the last seven games, Marseille sits seven points behind PSG - effectively 10 if PSG wins its extra game.
Monaco, the flamboyant 2017 champion, still has title-winning coach Leonardo Jardim in charge. But the Principality club is 17 points behind in seventh place and is no threat.
Even less so Lyon, which finished third last season but has been cut adrift and languishes embarrassingly in 12th spot as new coach Rudi Garcia struggles.
Anything other than another PSG title seems unreasonable to expect given its immense firepower, the regular goals from loan signing Mauro Icardi and, especially, the increasingly menacing partnership between Neymar and Kylian Mbappé.
Still, André Villas-Boas has done well in his first season in charge of Marseille, a turbulent club where managerial changes happen regularly because demands from the soccer-mad city’s fans are often so unreasonably high. After all, Marseille remains France’s only Champions League winner - in 1993 - while PSG has never reached a European Cup final.
Rudi Garcia paid the price at Marseille and made way for Villas-Boas, little more than one year after leading the south-coast club on a remarkable run to the Europa League final in 2018.
Villas-Boas has won the dressing room over - which is often the hardest thing to do at Marseille - and stylish attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet is recapturing his form in a bid to make France’s European Championship squad next year.
In tandem, Villas-Boas and Payet can be expected to help secure second place and bring Champions League soccer back next season.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON SO FAR
Mbappé has taken the league by storm, with his pace, ball control at speed, and lethal finishing.
After clinching both the league’s Player of the Year and top scorer awards last season, don’t bet against him doing so once more.
Despite only recently turning 21, he has already netted 105 career goals - including 18 in 19 games overall this season - and provided 50 assists in a career seemingly destined to take him to great heights.
At a young age, his efficiency is uncommon. But so is the France World Cup winner’s reading of the game, and together with Neymar he has the chance to develop one of the most promising partnerships in world soccer.
Providing they both stay at the club, with Mbappé able to resist the lure of 13-time European Cup winner Real Madrid.
SURPRISE OF THE SEASON
The vote goes to Lyon forward Memphis Depay, and not just out of sympathy because his season was ended by a serious knee injury.
The skillful Depay shone brightly to help a mediocre Lyon side qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League from a tough group. He scored in each game he played.
Blessed with passing and shooting ability in equal measure, his leadership was something observers had not previously seen.
He was thriving in his role as captain.
Now he faces a race to play for the Netherlands at Euro 2020.
MOVE OF THE SEASON
Neymar is considered the best dribbler in the league, but even the Brazil ace will have been impressed by a mesmerizing move from Lille’s Renato Sanches.
The Portugal midfielder was playing against Montpellier earlier this month when he completely flummoxed a defender.
Sanches feigned to control the ball with the inside of his foot as he prepared to receive it, then cut outside, inside, and back outside again while rolling his foot around the ball and flicking it past right back Arnaud Souquet.
Souquet was still looking the other way by the time Sanches zoomed past.
WHO’LL BE CHAMPION?
PSG will doubtless make it seven league titles in nine seasons since cash-rich Qatari backers QSI took over in June 2011.
Since QSI’s arrival, only Olivier Giroud-led Montpellier in 2012 and Mbappé-inspired Monaco in 2017 have stopped PSG winning the title.
But with an away trip to Marseille - and potentially a longer run in the Champions League - PSG may lose at least a couple more games.
Should Marseille’s improved form continue, PSG’s margin of victory is likely to be less than the 16 points over Lille last season.
WHO’S GOING DOWN?
Toulouse and Nimes occupy the last two places and are both five points behind Amiens in 18th place.
The nickname of ‘’Les Crocodiles” seems inappropriate considering Nimes lacks bite, with the league’s worst attack mustering 13 goals.
Considering it has the third-worst defense, with 32 conceded, Nimes should be expected to sink.
Last-place Toulouse had close calls in the past two seasons, and unless form dramatically improves it will be third time unlucky.
Amiens, Metz and Dijon are struggling. Amiens has the worst defense of the three and could end up scrapping in the promotion-relegation playoff.
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