Since the winter break Ligue 1 has seen a number of high profile changes including big-name transfers and managerial hiring and firing. However, one thing has remained constant and that is the high standard of football on show week by week.
By Jonathan Johnson - @Jon_LeGossip
Last Updated: 24/02/12 11:29am
Following the turn of the New Year new Paris Saint-Germain boss Carlo Ancelotti has seen his new side go unbeaten so far, Montpellier have kept up their surprise title push and three familiar faces to French football fans have been cut adrift at the bottom. With the race at the top heating up following the addition of Saint-Etienne to the chasing pack, Ligue 1 is further enhancing its reputation as one of Europe's burgeoning leagues every week. Here are the five players to have most caught the eye in recent months...
Despite having already mentioned him in this column already this season, no player has been more impressive in 2012 than PSG's samba star Nene. So far this season the winger has 14 goals and four assists in all competitions and has been instrumental since the Christmas break. The former Monaco star has put in some fantastic performances for his new boss Carlo Ancelotti and has contributed seven goals since Christmas which have provided six of les Rouge-et-Bleu's 11 points in the league and has seen the capital club through two rounds of the Coupe de France. Double strikes against Toulouse and Evian in the league, another in the Coupe de France against Sable followed by one against Dijon have seen him pull away as one of the frontrunners for this season's player of the year award. It beggars belief that the talented 30-year old still has yet to receive an international cap from Brazil, Spain or France given his treble eligibility.
Usually in good form for the first part of a season but quieter in the second; Nene is proving his critics wrong this year by sustaining his quality performances throughout the second part of the season. This new-found consistency will surely see him finally recognised on the international scene but the immediate challenge for him and his PSG teammates is to overhaul leading goal scorer and title rivals Olivier Giroud and Montpellier in the battle to bring the Ligue 1 trophy to the capital for the first time since 1994.
Second in the league scoring charts and currently trailing Giroud (16) by five goals, it is a tall task for Nene to be able to dislodge the unstoppable hit man but the Brazilian feels reinvigorated by the arrival of Ancelotti and wants to better last season's tally of 14 league goals and seven assists, which is well within his reach.
Speaking recently he said: "It's going well, and I'm happy to be picking up where I left off last season. It's true that I have more freedom now and because I'm not sticking to the left flank we have more chances to combine in different ways in attack.
"Our formation has changed; we now play a 4-3-2-1. The coach talks to us a lot to make it clear what he wants us to do, both before and after games. I'm just happy to continue making progress; I know I still have room for improvement."
A surprise name in this edition of the top five given his quiet start to the season is Saint-Etienne's Romanian international winger Banel Nicolita. The lightning fast wide man was unheralded when he arrived at Stade Geoffrey Guichard late last summer but the 27-year old has really impressed since the winter break with a string of quality performances that have coincided with ASSE's run to fourth in the table.
He has three goals and four assists to his name so far this season, only two of those assists have come since Christmas, but it is not the goals he scores and provides that have been impressive. Instead his work rate, creativity and marauding style of play have won him plaudits and helped him play a fundamental part in a number of les Verts' goals this year.
Although blessed with an abundance of talent in midfield, the team do not have a recognised goalscorer except for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (10 goals) and it is this lack of a second recognised striker that illustrates the Romanian's value to the side. Quite often the pace and creativity that Christophe Galtier utilises from the wings offsets the lack of a second real finisher in the side so ASSE can function with Aubameyang leading the line and Nicolita contributing from the right flank.
With Saint-Etienne now challenging for a place in next season's Champions League, they will need Nicolita to maintain his superb form heading into the final few months of the campaign.
Following his January transfer from Lille to league rivals Bordeaux, French-born Polish international Ludovic Obraniak has been in inspired form and has helped himself to three goals since arriving in Gironde. The 27-year old has scored five goals and provided two assists in 16 games for both clubs so far this season, but his two most recent strikes came for his new club against the former in a nine goal thriller in Lille where the attacking midfielder netted the winner in stoppage time to send FCGB home victorious (4-5).
Since his arrival Francis Gillot's men have discovered a new lease of life. What was once a team looking devoid of creativity and goal scoring threats now looks more dangerous with every passing game and the side are playing with a similar swagger to when they won the title three seasons ago. Although les Girondins are far from being title winning material just yet, Obraniak and a number of new additions have seen the side propel themselves back into European contention.
Brazilian right-back Mariano a January arrival from Fluminense has added instant width to the side and working in tandem with talented left-back Benoit Tremoulinas, Bordeaux appear to have the best full-back pairing in Ligue 1. The two combine regularly with Obraniak and are now creating an abundance of chances for Yoan Gouffran up top which were missing earlier this season and the striker is now profiting on this new found creativity having netted his eighth goal of the season last weekend, whilst the Pole is vindicated for his decision to leave last year's champions.
Speaking shortly after his move he said: "Joining a new team, a new project and having new teammates is a big challenge. I was convinced by my discussions with the president and manager Francis Gillot, who have very real ambitions. I made the choice to move to a club that would give me the opportunity to play more football. It was pretty straightforward, really."
This season has been one of transition for former powerhouses Lyon as new manager Remi Garde has introduced a handful of exciting young players to the squad and none have fared better than young striker Alexandre Lacazette, who is currently having an unforgettable start to the year. The 20-year old already has seven goals to his name from 21 games in all competitions and has netted five of those since Christmas. One goal came in the league against Dijon recently, but the U21 international's real value has come in the cup competitions where his extra time double saw Lyon past Lorient (2-4) and into the final of the Coupe de la Ligue. He then found the net in a home win against Bordeaux in the Coupe de France before scoring an invaluable winner at home to APOEL in the Champions League days later.Although perhaps too early to suggest that he should be a full international just yet, his recent performances will have caught the eye of les Bleus' manager Laurent Blanc and alongside fellow youth team product Maxime Gonalons, he could be a dark horse for a squad place at this summer's European Championship. The talented striker is fast, has a great eye for goal and more importantly, is one of the few current Lyon players with an appetite for the big matches. His goals in the cup alone demonstrate his remarkably strong character and composure despite his relative lack of experience and there will be plenty more to come from this extremely talented attacker.
Last but not least is Montpellier's exciting attacking midfield talent Remy Cabella. At 21 the Ajaccio-born youngster is just starting to make his breakthrough and what a time to pick to enforce yourself upon the first team! With Montpellier sitting second in Ligue 1 one point off leaders PSG, and progressing well in the Coupe de France, coupled with an abundance of absentees for this winter's Africa Cup of Nations, Cabella has had plenty of opportunities to impress manager Rene Girard of late.
The French U21 international grabbed the opening with both hands and has been in impressive form over recent weeks contributing four goals since Christmas. One came in the league against hometown club Ajaccio, the other came in the Coupe de France with a double against Prix-les-Mezieres followed by a match-winner against high-flying Ligue 2 outfit Tours. These strikes take his total for the season to six goals, impressive given that he has only made 15 appearances in all competitions.
The youngster's link-up play with Giroud at times is outstanding but Cabella's versatility means he can also be played out wide where he can utilise his pace and cut inside regularly. With an eye for goal and time on his side, he is a top prospect in French football right now and will surely go on to build on his burgeoning reputation if given the chance.
With MHSC currently under the spotlight given their recent success, a host of star players including Olivier Giroud, Younes Belhanda and Mapou Yanga Mbiwa are being linked with a move away from the club, most notably with switches to the Premier League mooted. Cabella however is biding his time, taking opportunities when they come along and proving all the while that he has the potential to become a part of this impressive attacking outfit next season if la Paillade's bid for Champions League football is successful and the club manages to retain their star names.
Given the high quality of play of the past few months it is very hard to just pick five players who have been playing so I will make a few exceptional mentions of some other talents who have not gone unnoticed. Cabella's Montpellier team-mate Younes Belhanda has made an immediate impact since returning from Africa Cup of Nations duty with Morocco. The 21-year old's three goals since returning earlier this month have helped keep la Paillade in the chase for league and cup glory and his recent performance in the highly anticipated top of the table clash between PSG and Montpellier last weekend caught the eye. You will be hearing more about this boy very soon.
Saint-Etienne's Kurt Zouma is another tremendous young Ligue 1 talent to have caught the eye and his talent has already been noted by scouts of Manchester United and Manchester City. Brought into the side amidst an injury crisis the towering 17-year old has been asked to play right-back and centre-back already this year. He has raw power and pace and is growing in confidence and stature in every game, while he has quickly staked a claim for a first team spot. Dominant in the air at the back and going forward and capable of making lung-bursting runs from defence with the ball, French football experts are already tipping the youngster to be the new Marcel Desailly. Only time will tell.
Finally, a little update on how two Premier League loanees are faring in Ligue 1 currently. Joe Cole has been playing for Lille since the start of the season while Gael Kakuta joined Dijon in January after cutting short his previous loan with Bolton Wanderers. Since making the move the 20-year old has been reinvigorated and has made an immediate impression in his first few games for Patrice Carteron's men.
Two goals and an assist in three league games and one goal in the Coupe de France is a fantastic return for the former Lens man who opted to join the Ligue 1 strugglers in a bid to prove to his critics that he is still the player that Chelsea's risked severe punishment to sign in 2007. So far his decision is paying off and a strong finish to the season will see the youngster head back to Stamford Bridge a stronger player.
Cole on the other hand has not had as much luck. Despite his loan spell starting very promisingly it has petered out into nothing in recent weeks with the 30-year-old delivering some flat performances in the league. His time with the reigning champions has had some undoubted high points but sadly his performances of late will not have been enough to persuade club chairman Michel Seydoux that he is worth the financial commitment that a permanent transfer deal would require.
The year started brightly with the Londoner netting four cup goals in the space of a week, one in the Coupe de la Ligue against Lyon swiftly following a hat-trick against amateur outfit Chantilly in a 6-0 thumping in the Coupe de France but being a flat-track bully as some have suggested following these performances is not enough to impress in France. His biggest problem this year has been consistency and although he has now regained the match fitness he was lacking at the start of the season, he still goes missing far too often in games. Despite his enormous popularity with the fans, short of a miraculous finish to the season, it seems increasingly likely he'll return to Anfield in the summer.