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The Rise of French Club Football?

By Edward Griffiths

Arsene Wenger, Gerard Houillier, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira might have wallowed in most of the headlines, but there is another far less celebrated Frenchman who has exerted significant influence over English football during the past five years.
He breezes into the foyer of the fashionably fashionable Sanderson hotel, converted from a department store off London's Oxford Street and softly lit in psychedelic mauve.
"The English clubs are all overrated," declares Marc Roger, the player's agent who has engineered the transfers of many superstars into the deep pockets of the Premiership elite. "People talk all about Arsenal and Manchester United but there is greater technical quality in the top French clubs. Look at Monaco and Lyon!"
"Toujours les patriotes," I smiled. He insisted, between insistent sips of coffee, expressive drags of his cigarette and expansive waving of his hand. "The atmosphere of the Premiership is special, but the quality is poor."
Well, Monsieur Roger has mixed freely with football's high and mighty for the past decade and, even though he is wearing a cream three-piece suit that looks as though it could be velvet, his idea that French clubs are on the rise is worth considering.
The UEFA Champions League is the best place to start in any analysis of relative strengths of European leagues and France began the 2003/04 edition with three clubs in the draw.
They fared well: Marseille might have been consigned to the UEFA Cup in a group topped by Real Madrid, but Lyon claimed first place in Group A and Monaco won Group C.
Both clubs showed consistent form through the group stage, but their performances on the evening of Wednesday November 5th stunned Europe. Lyon's outstanding 2-1 win at Bayern Munich was matched on the night by Monaco's extraordinary 8-3 demolition of the highly rated Spanish team, Deportivo la Coruna.
Marc Roger seemed to have a point.
Into the last 16, Lyon and Monaco have been drawn against Real Sociedad and Lokomotiv Moscow repectively, suggesting the real prospect of two French teams in the last eight. Such Gallic success is unmatched in recent Champions League history, and certainly suggests a surge in form.
However, for its part, the Premiership has scarcely flopped in Europe this season. Newcastle may have lost in the qualifying round but Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea all finished first in their qualifying groups and marched into the last 16.
Now, Roger would undoubtedly point to the current standings in the Premiership and say that, the top three apart, the remainder of the English league lacks much technical quality. That's a moot point.
What about the other clubs in Le Premier Ligue? At the time of writing, Monaco are seven points clear at the top, with Lyon and Auxerre in pursuit. The alleged stampede of quality looks more like a procession led by the team of Didier Deschamps.
As for comparisons with the Premiership, let's wait until the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, shall we?

By Edward Griffiths, sports writer (March 2004)


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