Shipped from abroad, France: Olivier Giroud is so over Ligue 1’s scoring title

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There’s a surprise name on top of one of Ligue 1’s tables. Paris Saint-Germain’s Nene, with a Sunday hat-trick at Rennes, sits with 21 goals, tied for the French first division’s lead. It’s a stature few would begrudge PSG’s oft-under-appreciated Brazilian, even if the ranking’s caught some1 by surprise.

We had become accustomed to seeing Montpellier’s Olivier Giroud at the top of that list, but as of Sunday, he has to share the perch. The 25-year-old No. 9, in only his second season in France’s top flight, sprinted to the top of the scoring list, scoring eight times in Montpellier’s first 10 league games. At the same time his club, which most picked to battle relegation, staked a claim in a title race that was supposed to be contested between Lille, Lyon, Marseille, and PSG. As MHSC resolutely set France’s blistering pace, it was difficult to decide which was more shocking: Montpellier’s place atop Ligue 1 or Giroud pacing the league’s scorers.

While we reamin a bit bewildered by MHSC’s title persistence, Giroud’s place as France’s most prolific scorer started to make sense. He broke into the French national team. By season’s end, he was being linked with a high profile moves to England and Bayern Munich, having made a name for himself with a list of pushpin performances:

  • Scoring the only goal in Montpellier’s first statement of the season, a 1-0 August win at Lille.
  • An October hat trick against Dijon.
  • Three at Sochaux in November.
  • The only goal in MHSC’s January win over Lyon.
  • A stoppage time winner in a January 1-0 at Nice.
  • An 89th minute winner against Saint-Etienne in March.

Whatever August ideas we had about Giroud2 have been usurped by this doppelganger leading a no-time champion to its first title.

At least, title-bound is where Montpellier stands after their Manchester Citian defeat of Lille on Sunday.3 The defending champions visited MHSC knowing a win would keep their defense alive. As time built and a scoreless draw seeming inevitable, Lille coach Rudi Garcia drove his team forward, knowing one point for this third-place side was as good as none.

The strategy backfired, with Giroud providing for (instead of scoring) the match’s winning goal:

If Nene wins the scoring title, so be it. Ascending where the likes of Javier Pastore have fallen short, it’s a fair result for the brightest on a team of individual talents – a man who can claim to be the best non-Eden Hazard player in France.

Giroud, on the other hand, has been the man who’s led a title charge. The scoring title in exchange for the league? That only seems right.

Elsewhere in France

Sunday’s results
Ajaccio 1-0 Lyon
Bordeaux 1-0 Lorient
Brest 1-0 Valenciennes
Caen 1-3 Sochaux
Dijon 1-1 Toulouse
Marseille 3-0 Auxerre
Montpellier 1-0 Lille
Nancy 3-2 Saint-Etienne
Nice 1-1 Evian
PSG 3-0 Stade Rennes

Races

Champions League: Montpellier (79 points/37 games played), PSG (76/37), Lille (71/37)

Europa League: Lyon 64, Bordeaux 58 (Marseille has already qualified by virtue of winning the Coupe de la Ligue)

Survival (relegation): Valencciennes (40/37), Nice (39/37), Lorient (39/37), Sochaux (39/37), Brest (38/37), Caen (38/37), Ajaccio (38/37), Dijon (37/36) (Auxerre has already confirmed relegation)

Stuff that stuck out:

  • The year’s other breakout goal scorer, Saint-Etienne’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, scored again on Sunday. The 22-year-old Gabonese attacker is up to 15 goals (fourth in Ligue 1). Like the rest of us, he’s been linked with Arsenal. If he does move, Les Verts will get a quick return on the $2.9 million they gave Milan in December.
  • Unlike most of its European brethren, France has one weekend to go. As you can see by the relegation battle (right),  most teams will have something to play for.
  • Those teams would include Montpellier and PSG. With a point at Auxerre next Sunday, Montpellier confirm their first title. PSG needs a Montpellier loss and a win at Lorient.
  • Wait – so Bordeaux is good again? Apparently. Francis Gillot’s side has won five in a row, taking advantage of France’s mid-table madness to climb into a Europa League spot. On Sunday, it was Yoan Gouffran’s third goal in two games – a stoppage time penalty kick while down a man – that downed Lorient.
  • In Marseille, Didier Deschamps condescended to play Andre Pierre Gignac for 40 minutes, at the end of which the still 26-year-old striker scored his first goal of the Ligue 1 season. Hopefully APG finds a new home this summer.

Up next: While Montpellier is at Auxerre, PSG will need to win at Lorient on Sunday, with the league’s 10 matches all scheduled for 3 p.m. ET kickoffs. The day’s biggest game? Probably Bordeaux’s visit to Saint-Etienne, where the league’s last Europa League spot will be at stake. Among the league’s remaining games, only Nancy’s visit to Lille is meaningless. The rest have some influence on the relegation battle.

Your takeaway video:

The second of Nene’s three against Rennes. And to think, this is the club that almost signed Becks:


1 – I often refer to myself as ‘some’.
2 – We had no ideas about Olivier Giroud in August.
3 – Montpellier’s Sunday win bared very little resemblance to City’s, but for a little while, I’m going to feel obligated to label any stoppage time-snagged win as Citian.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.

Real Salt Lake introduces Mike Petke as new head coach

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Mike Petke is getting a deserved next kick as an MLS coach.

The New York Red Bulls icon, 41, is taking over at Real Salt Lake, where he had been leading USL side Real Monarchs since December.

“They’re an animal waiting to be released from a cage,” Petke called RSL’s roster.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

Petke won better than 41 percent of his matches as RBNY boss, leading the club to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. This came after 351 matches between Colorado, the Red Bulls/MetroStars, and DC United.

He leaves Real Monarchs with a perfect 1-0 record. Unbeaten!

“The vision that he laid out, along with Craig and Rob, was music to my ears,” Petek said. “They really showed me what was ahead for the RSL organization, and it was an easy thing to be a part of.”

Petke thanked the Monarchs for restoring some of his love for managing, something he said was “kicked out of me”. The Red Bulls shockingly parted ways with Petke in January 2015, moving onto Jesse Marsch.

This is a low risk hire for Real, who gains a respected coach and soccer mind. The optics aren’t great coming so early into the season and so soon after his hiring at Monarchs raised eyebrows.

The hiring comes four days after RSL drew the Red Bulls 0-0 at Red Bull Arena, which is the only disappointment of this whole ordeal: Not getting to see the response at his old home.