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Lyon still the team to beat in France

It was more of the same for French football in 2008 with Lyon dominant on the domestic front where they won their seventh consecutive league title in May but falling short once again on the continental level.

sports Updated: Aug 10, 2009 13:36 IST

It was more of the same for French football in 2008 with Lyon dominant on the domestic front where they won their seventh consecutive league title in May but falling short once again on the continental level.

This season though, the championship looks to be turning out to be more than a one horse race for Claude Puel's men, with Bordeaux, Marseille, Rennes and a rejuvinated Paris St Germain giving chase as they enter the winter break.

But if the title race is closer-fought than in recent years one thing which has not changed is France's inability to make a major impact in Europe.

Although they duly qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League, Lyon have still to make it past the quarter-finals and the country's failure to punch its weight in a European Cup is increasingly felt.

Marseille won the trophy in 1993 but remain the only French side to do so and Laurent Blanc, a World Cup winner in 1998 and now in charge at Bordeaux, says a gulf has clearly emerged between domestic and European competition.

After seeing his team defeated by Roma and Chelsea, Blanc noted "individual deficiencies which meant we were not able to go any further.

"You can get away with it in the French league but you are exposed once you get to the Champions League.

"It's not for nothing that no French club has won the Champions League for 15 years. It's a question of talent and of money."

Blanc lamented Bordeaux's relatively limited budget of 70 million euros - small beer compared with the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid, who operate at nearer to 300 million euros.

Marseille have also lost financial ground with their last league title success way back in 1993 and only recent participation in the Champions League, coupled with their sizeable fan base, lets them keep pace with Lyon.

Under the expert hand of Eric Gerets, Marseille climbed back up the league to finish third last season, but they remain frustatingly inconsistent and an embarrassing 0-3 defeat at home to Nancy had the Belgian shaking his head as they entered the break in fifth place.

There was more of a festive feel about things at Paris St German where Paul Le Guen has turned things around after a dismal last season where PSG narrowly avoided the drop and their coach narrowly avoided the chop.

Bringing in experienced campaigners like Claude Makalele and Ludovic Giuly to complement the budding talents of Stephane Sessegnon and Guillaume Hoarau did the trick and the capital club are up to fourth in the league as well as reaching the last 32 of the UEFA Cup.

But the odds are still very much in favour of an eighth consecutive win for Lyon who have a four points lead over the chasing pack at the halfway stage and the deepest pool of talent available among the top clubs.

The man largely responsible for the rise of Lyon, chairman Jean-Michel Aulas says that funds will be made available to Puel if he needs it to ensure that the club can conquer Europe like they have conquered France.

"To be able to meet all the expectations and hopes that have been placed on us, we need to have the means to do it," he said.

"It's true that the others are closing the gap in France, but it is the same thing in the Champions League.

"We don't think that the gap between us and the best teams is unsurmountable and we are going to do all we can to match them."

On the international Front, it was a dismal year for the French crashing out of Euro 2008 after two defeats and a draw in their group games and then slumping to a humbling 1-3 defeat to Austria in their first qualifier for the 2010 World Cup.

The knives were out for coach Raymond Domenech, but somehow he survived and his re-assembled side brought him breathing space with a home win over Serbia and an away point in Romania.