Still no favorite in unpredictable French league

JEROME PUGMIRE AP Sports Writer Published:

PARIS (AP) -- The unpredictable French league has seen the lead change hands seven times already this season, with Lyon and Marseille failing to take advantage of Paris Saint-Germain's inconsistency and giving the big spenders several reprieves.

Marseille had a four-point lead early on, and Lyon led by five approaching the winter break as PSG struggled to turn its expensive squad into a functioning team. Lyon has topped the league for a total of nine rounds, Marseille for six and PSG for five.

PSG has tightened up its defense and has not lost since Dec. 1, so Lyon and Marseille can ill afford to keep dropping points against weak teams the way Lyon did in last week's 0-0 home draw with Evian and when Marseille lost 3-1 at Sochaux the week before.

"We're not in the same dynamic as we were in 2012," veteran Lyon midfielder Steed Malbranque said. "We're going to react quickly. We're aware of the situation. It would be daft to spoil everything by just slacking off after a good first half of the season."

Ahead of this weekend's games, PSG leads Lyon on goal difference with Marseille one point behind. Lyon is at Valenciennes on Friday, Marseille travels to Rennes on Saturday, and PSG takes on Lille on Sunday.

Lyon was hampered by injuries to midfielders Clement Grenier and Yoann Gourcuff, who have only just returned to the side, and form has waned in recent weeks with coach Remi Garde's team winning only two of its past five league games.

"In the first half of the season, we were a team, not a group of individuals," Malbranque added. "Collectively, we were well-oiled, and we haven't been able to find that fluidity in our play again."

According to goalkeeper Remi Vercoutre, a major reason for the recent lack of consistency has been the endless transfer speculation surrounding the club. President Jean-Michel Aulas has made it publicly clear that one or two key players may need to be sold or loaned out to help balance the books, with strikers Bafetimbi Gomis and Lisandro Lopez, winger Michel Bastos and Gourcuff the biggest assets.

The speculation seems to have affected Lyon's potent strike duo, with Gomis scoring only one league goal in the past six games, and Lopez mustering one in five amid talk of a loan move to Juventus.

"Everything that happens in the media, when it comes to our key players, can be unsettling. They're less relaxed when they play," Vercoutre told sports daily L'Equipe on Thursday. "Our directors have thought it through. In my opinion, they're not over the moon about having to sell one or two players. It's an economic reality rather than a wish."

At PSG, the problems are the other way around.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti has so many players on his hands and fresh funds available that he has to decide which of his stars to leave out and whether or not he needs to bring in more.

New Brazilian signing Lucas recently joined from Sao Paulo, and Ancelotti must decide whether to play him or stick with France winger Jeremy Menez, who set up two goals in Wednesday's 3-1 win over Toulouse in the French Cup.

"The team was very solid both in attack and defense," PSG center half Mamadou Sakho said. "We played some good football and enjoyed ourselves on the pitch."

Lucas is the third player to cost more than €40 million ($52 million) and the pressure will be on Ancelotti to pick him, but at the risk of unbalancing the team after it has fought so hard to find a way to play cohesively.

Also Saturday, it's: Evian vs. Ajaccio; Montpellier vs. Sochaux; Nancy vs. Lorient; Reims vs. Toulouse; and Troyes vs. Brest.

Saint-Etienne faces Bastia and Nice takes on Bordeaux in Sunday's games.