Monaco lead the pack

Winter review: AS Monaco FC are clear at the top of Ligue 1, but Olympique Lyonnais are still in touch.

In May when the French Professional League (LFP) financial committee announced that AS Monaco FC were to be relegated due to a financial crisis, few would have predicted the upturn in their fortunes that followed.

Winning appeal
Six months later, and the side from the principality are seven points clear at the top of Ligue 1 and safely ensconced in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. The club owe much to their new chairman Pierre Svara, who assumed control soon after they won an appeal against the LFP's decision and has since won praise for his senisble management of the club's finances.

Deschamps improvement
However the man who has really masterminded Monaco's recovery is coach Didier Deschamps. France's former FIFA World Cup winning captain is now in his third season at the Stade Louis II and after a disappointing 15th-place finish in 2001/02, last season's runners-up finish has proved the prelude to a superb 2003/04 campaign.

Nonda injury
Monaco began the season uncertainly, falling 3-1 on the second weekend of the season to Olympique Lyonnais. Two weeks later they were robbed of the services of last season's top scorer Shabani Nonda with a long-term injury. However Deschamps acted quickly to replace his injured talisman, securing Fernando Morientes on loan from Real Madrid CF.

'They enjoy life'
With the Spaniard settling in nicely, Monaco have led the league since round seven, losing just twice in 18 matches, and are now hot favourites to win their first championship since 2000. "It’s the result of about a year-and-a-half with the same squad," Deschamps said. "The players know each other very well - they enjoy life together."

Giuly success
Deschamps is no respecter of reputations - having dispensed with Marco Simone, Stéphane Porato and Marcelo Gallardo - but he has also inspired superb form out of wingers Ludovic Giuly and Jérôme Rothen. Captain Giuly has arguably been the league's most impressive performer this season while Rothen has developed hugely since joining Monaco from ES Troyes Aube Champagne in 2001/02.

Crucial January
Both men are now in the hunt for a place in Jacques Santini's UEFA EURO 2004™ plans, however there is a championship to be won first and everyone at Monaco knows that January will be a particularly crucial month, with Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain FC both visiting Monte Carlo.

Big guns
Monaco aside, the other main feature of the season has been the dominance of Ligue 1's traditional big guns at the expense of outsiders such as Lille OSC, OGC Nice or EA Guingamp who have enjoyed unexpected success over the last three seasons. With Lyon second and PSG third with AJ Auxerre fifth and Olympique de Marseille lurking in sixth, the division has a familiar look to it.

Sochaux shine
In the tight chasing pack FC Sochaux Montbéliard are the biggest surprise package. Currently fourth they have also enjoyed their first foray into Europe in 20 years, having thrashed BV Borussia Dortmund 6-2 on aggregate to set up a UEFA Cup third-round meeting with FC Internazionale.

Biggest obstacle
However it is Lyon who are the biggest obstacle between Monaco and the title. Having come from behind to win Ligue 1 for the past two seasons, the champions have also showed their class by advancing through to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

Promoted sides struggle
For the the trio of promoted sides, European football seems very far away; Toulouse FC and Le Mans UC 72 are both in the relegation zone and FC Metz are not far ahead of them.