FEATURE: Black Stars draw the Battle Lines in Ligue 1
While the French title race has become a staid affair—with Paris Saint-Germain ambling inexorably towards the Championnat—the fight to stay in the division has taken on an exciting tone.
When former Zambia boss Herve Renard was appointed at Sochaux at the end of 2013, the Montbeliard-based club appeared to be heading towards the division’s trapdoor. Few backed the ex-Chipolopolo manager to turn the tide, yet he has steadily begun to reverse the Lions’ fortunes.
He immediately recruited two of his charges from Zambia’s magnificent 2012 Cup of Nations triumph.
Both Nathan Sinkala and Stoppila Sunzu had been tipped for moves to Europe (they had both previously starred for Congolese powerhouse TP Mazembe), but it was Renard who took the plunge.
He added these two to another Zambian star, Emmanuel Mayuka, as well as Wolves loanee Razak Boukari and African players such as Thierry Doubai, Cedric Kante, Joe Lopy and Kalilou Traore.
His masterpiece, however, has been the steady revival of Ghana forward Jordan Ayew.
The Black Star hitman—son of the great Abedi Pele and brother of Andre ‘Dede’ Ayew—had been listing aimlessly at Marseille.
Despite being blessed with a multitude of talents, the forward had stagnated at OM and had begun to look disinterested and unmotivated.
He may only be 22, but considering he has over 100 League appearances for Marseille under his belt, the youngster’s lack of progress is staggering.
The club hierarchy clearly felt that the Ghanaian needed a jolt to return the hunger and vivacity that had once made him so feted.
Renard was deemed to be the man to provide it, and Sochaux the club to benefit.
Initially, things didn’t go to plan.
Ayew’s first two showings ended in defeat—as much the result of Renard’s team digesting his new ideas as any failings on the striker’s behalf—and it wasn’t until his eighth game that he found the net.
That match was the magnificent 2-0 victory over Bordeaux.
The forward entered the fray in the 68th minute and opened the scoring two minutes later. Up to that point, Les Bordelais had had the best of the action (with Greg Sertic hitting the woodwork) but after that it was all one-way traffic.
Cedric Bakambu scored in the last ten minutes and the Sochaux fans began hope once again.
In the following game, against Monaco, a frustrated Ayew was sent off in the dying minutes, frustrated at the near-inevitable 2-1 defeat.
If questions remain about his temperament, he silenced anyone doubting his talent with a superb Man of the Match display (and a goal) in the 2-2 draw away at Bastia. He repeated the trick; scoring and setting-up team-mate Roy Contout, in the club’s unlikely 2-0 victory over Toulouse last weekend.
Since the beginning of February, Sochaux have lost only three games (one of which when Ayew was suspended) and have won five. Comparably, in the 11 games before Ayew’s arrival, they won just one, drew three and lost seven.
Player and coach are spearheading an African-led revival and, with five games to play, the club are only five points behind Guingamp in 17th.
As well as looking ahead of them, however, the Lions must also be aware of what is coming up from behind.
Like their rivals, Valenciennes have spent almost the entire season near the foot of Ligue 1. For 22 weeks of the campaign, they have been sat in 18th place. At the time of writing they have dropped to 19th.
Nonetheless, VAFC are not without hope. Only one point behind Sochaux, they too are eyeing safety.
The main architect of their optimism is another Ghanaian forward, Majeed Waris.
The striker enjoyed a fairly dire 2013, having left Swedish side Hacken for Spartak Moscow.
He escaped from his Russian nightmare in January, having been acquired on loan by Valenciennes.
He has quickly become a hero in Northern France and has had an even bigger impact than Ayew.
In 13 matches, Waris has scored nine goals, provided three assists and has been Man of the Match on three occasions. Eight of those goals came in just eight fixtures.
He was the key protagonist in victories over Bastia, Nice and Rennes and also earned the club a valuable point in the relegation six-pointer against Sochaux.
Despite only playing half a season, he is already 12th in the Ligue 1 scoring charts—had he managed this same scoring ratio since the beginning of the campaign, he would be second only to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Guingamp, in 17th, are looking nervously over their shoulder and surely questioning why they didn’t invest in a Ghanaian striker of their own during the January window!
Ultimately, at least one of the two clubs will almost certainly drop into Ligue 2. Ahead of Guingamp, Evian (with their own Black Star, centre-back Jonathan Mensah) are eight points clear of the drop.
Whether it is Valenciennes or Sochaux that escape the clutches of the bottom three, don’t expect Ayew or Waris to stick around.
The question, rather, is whether they are content with a future at Marseille and Moscow respectively.
In the meantime, the superb form of the pair bodes well for Ghana this summer.
Only one of the pair—if either—will likely start for the Black Stars in Group G, but Kwesi Appiah can be quietly optimistic that their explosive recent showings and capacities might unsettle one or two defences in Brazil.
By Ed Dove