Another week, another defeat for Toulouse in a relegation six-pointer against Dijon. Despite missing nearly an entire first team of players through injury and suspension, and having equalised after the hosts had taken the lead through Hamza Mendyl, Les Violets once again tasted defeat, extending their winless run to 18 matches in the league. Now 17 points behind Dijon, and 14 adrift of even the relegation play-off spot, one of France’s top-flight mainstays over the last decade are now all but certain to taste life in the second division, a relegation the likes of which Ligue 1 hasn’t seen since that of Monaco a decade ago.
There are problems at the back, with goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet having been controversially dropped for Aston Villa loanee Lovre Kalinic, signed in January. Gen Shoji has recently departed for Japan after an injury-blighted year in France, the player having fallen out with Denis Zanko, the coach installed after Antoine Kombouaré was sacked. In midfield, Ibrahim Sangaré is playing far below the level he displayed in previous seasons, and William Vainqueur, who had seemed a canny buy in the summer, looks a shell of the player who had been such a reliable presence for Marseille three years ago.
The team’s attack has similarly foundered; the goal scored by Quentin Boisgard on Saturday was the team’s first in eight league matches. Injuries to the talismanic Max-Alain Gradel and Mathieu Dossevi have been problematic, but more damning has been the form of record signing Wesley Saïd (two goals, one assist) and Efthymios Koulouris’, whose effectiveness has fallen off a cliff after a bright start started brought him four goals by early October. Boisgard has shown flashes of ability in an expanded role of late, but for a club which in recent years has been a consistent source of young talent (Alban Lafont, Issa Diop, Étienne Capoue, Wissam Ben Yedder), the cupboard seems exceptionally bare.
Transfer mis-steps happen at every club, but Toulouse have been circling the proverbial drain for some time now, dating to their now-famous final day win under Pascal Dupraz to earn survival and a favourable chain of events surrounding their play-off win over AC Ajaccio two years ago. Last season survival was achieved more slightly more comfortably, but of the sides that did stay up none had won fewer matches, a poorer goal difference or a worse defence. But while plenty of teams have rebounded quite well from relegation (see Monaco’s title win and Strasbourg’s impressive play in the top flight following their double promotion), things may only be about to get worse for Les Violets.
The former Nice owner Chien Lee reportedly wants to buy the club from Olivier Sadran, who has made it clear he wants shot of a team, who, despite a sparkling new stadium built for the 2016 European Championships, have been dogged by poor attendances as they battle the prominent role that rugby plays in the sporting imaginations of the people in south-western France. Sadran, despite his denials, has entered into a period of exclusive negotiation with a group headed by Lee, who are currently taking stock of Toulouse’s finances.
Lee, of course, did nothing much to endear himself to Nice’s supporters, despite Les Aiglons having done rather well in sporting terms, fighting as they did for the title in the 2016-17 season, and playing some scintillating football under both Lucien Favre and Claude Puel. Following on from that success, however, his lack of investment in the club’s playing staff following the early arrivals of Mario Balotelli and Younès Belhanda made it clear he viewed the club as an investment vehicle. This reticence to spend despite the funds generated by the sales of Dalbert, Jean-Michaël Seri, and Alassane Pléa.
Lee plans to bring in Gauthier Ganaye at Toulouse, the former Barnsley executive who had been his president, albeit briefly, at Nice. Ganaye has hardly showed much aptitude on the sporting side of things, with signings such as Danilo and Myziane Maolida looking more ill-judged by the week. Lee may sense a bargain in the making, given the price being bandied about for the club is a €20, a relative pittance even as they head for Ligue 2 given the team’s catchment area and stadium infrastructure.
The deal is expected to be concluded by the end of April, ironically at roughly the same time relegation will likely be mathematically confirmed. Lee, as he had done at the beginning of his Nice adventure, will need to invest in the club’s playing staff this summer, with Sangaré, Issiaga Sylla, and Kelvin Amian among the players most attractive for potential buyers.
With the carrot of Ligue 1’s TV rights augmentation, which are set to double upon the beginning of the LFP’s new broadcasting contract, promotion will be all but imperative, which in and of itself will be a matter of reassurance for the team’s fans. But will Lee change his approach on the sporting side, or quickly fall foul of supporters? The view from here is that an old dog is unlikely to learn new tricks, and while Lee may have moved west in his bid for financial success in French football, Toulouse’s sporting ambition may be heading south as quickly off the pitch as on it.
• At Lee’s former club, Nice recorded a somewhat surprising result as Kasper Dolberg’s double, including a last-minute winner, powered them to a 2-1 derby win over Monaco that moved Les Aiglons ahead of their rivals and into the top six. While it’s certainly taken some time for the team to coalesce under Patrick Vieira this season, the improving play of the young Dane (six goals since the turn of the year) has been key in giving the side a badly-needed focal point and fostering a somewhat surprising push for European football.
• Rennes thumped Montpellier 5-0 in what may have been the most surprising result of the weekend. Even with Pedro Mendes back in the side, the visitors were no match for Rennes, who cut their opponents to ribbons despite having leading scorer, M’baye Niang, on the bench. The pitch-perfect performance from Julian Stéphan’s side has given their hopes for a best-ever top flight finish a none-too-inconsiderable boost.
• Lille responded in kind, however, to keep things very tight in the race for the final Champions League. Their 1-0 victory over Lyon may have lacked the verve of some of last season’s performances, and Victor Osimhen in particular looked off the pace, but with their opponents looking weary, a calm and controlled performance from Christophe Galtier’s side whelped ensure that the battle for third will continue to bear watching.