Auxerre & Montpellier spice up Ligue 1 title race

PARIS - Auxerre and Montpellier started the Ligue 1 campaign aiming to avoid relegation, which sounded reasonable given limited resources and unglamorous squads.

Now, with seven games left, they are level on points with leaders Olympique Lyon in the tightest finale for years - just three points separate sixth-placed Lille from top spot.

Champions Bordeaux and traditional challengers Olympique Marseille, fourth and fifth respectively a point off the pace with two games in hand, are about where they were expected to be.

The same goes for northerners Lille, who have spent money over the years in a bid to play a leading role and can boast one of the most exciting Ligue 1 players in young Belgium winger Eden Hazard.

Auxerre and Montpellier, by contrast, have upset all the odds and have a strong chance of playing in Europe next season.

Auxerre, from a small town in Burgundy surrounded by the chablis vineyards, are famous for regularly having over-achieved despite limited means. They won a domestic league and Cup double in 1996 and reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 1993.

Auxerre have boasted great players in the past, including Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc, and were guided for over four decades by coach Guy Roux, a father figure who left the club in 2005.

They had suffered in recent years, however, and their current run, under astute and experienced coach Jean Fernandez, has surprised many.

WATERTIGHT DEFENCE

With seasoned warriors at the back and talent up front in Romania forward Daniel Niculae and Poland striker Ireneusz Jelen, Fernandez has concentrated on building a watertight defence that has leaked just 25 goals in 31 games.

Compact and dangerous from counter-attacks, Auxerre are nothing extraordinary but have nevertheless proved to be tough opponents, although Fernandez is not getting carried away.

"There is no chance we can win the title," he told reporters. "Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille are above the rest and will fill the top three spots. We'll be happy if we make the Europa League."

Southerners Montpellier, back in the top flight this season after a long spell in the second division, looked even less likely to trouble the usual suspects.

They did not have that much money but spent it wisely, notably purchasing solid Bosnia defender Emir Spahic while retaining the best players from the young team that won promotion, starting with Argentine midfielder Alberto Costa.

"We hate losing and are not afraid of anyone," Montpellier coach Rene Girard told reporters, giving away one of the secrets of a successful team playing with no pressure. "We concentrate on what we have to do and don't worry about the rest."

The troubles of the traditional powerhouses have helped Auxerre and Montpellier. Lyon struggled in the first part of the season after the departure of arguably their best players, Brazilian midfielder Juninho and France striker Karim Benzema.

BELOW PAR

Bordeaux, who started well, have slowed down lately, showing uncharacteristic weaknesses at the back, partly because central defender Marc Planus has been injured.

Girondins, who have just lost three matches in three different competitions, have also been hampered by the fact that their inspiration, France playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, has looked below par.

"It is normal for sides to have difficult spells," Bordeaux president Jean-Louis Triaud told reporters. "The players know what our goals are and realise what they need to do."

Bordeaux and Lyon, who have strong squads but not as much strength-in-depth as the leading European sides, have also found it hard to have to fight on several fronts.

Their Champions League quarter-final clash indicates, however, that they are still the cream of the crop and the quality of Ligue 1 has not suffered from the rise of unexpected challengers.

Marseille are also ambitious, with gifted players such as Senegal striker Mamadou Niang, the league's top scorer with 15 goals, and a morale boost from a win over Bordeaux in the League Cup final that earned them their first trophy in 17 years.

If Lyon keep up the pace they have set over the past few weeks and Bordeaux and Marseille make the most of their games in hand, the picture at the top of Ligue 1 when the season ends on May 15 might look familiar after all.

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