Could there actually be a title race in France this season? That is the question being asked after Paris Saint-Germain slumped to a second defeat of 2023 on Sunday to give hope to its rivals at the halfway stage of the campaign.
At the start of the season the question was whether the PSG of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar could go the whole campaign undefeated in the league.
It duly went unbeaten through its first 16 games but that run was ended when it came up against its nearest challengers Lens on New Year’s Day.
With Messi still taking a post-World Cup break, PSG were blown away in an intimidating atmosphere in France’s far north and lost that game 3-1.
On Sunday it suffered a second straight defeat on the road, losing 1-0 at Champions League chasers Rennes despite fielding Messi, Mbappe and Neymar together for the first time since the World Cup.
Lens and Rennes are two of the best-run clubs in France and two of the strongest teams at home, so losing against these opponents is no disgrace.
But it is the manner in which PSG has been beaten that is a cause for concern for coach Christophe Galtier.
His team is yet to rediscover the form the form it enjoyed before the season paused for the World Cup.
Now a crunch Champions League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich is on the horizon -- the first leg in Paris is on February 14.
“If it is a question of time then it is urgent. We can find a thousand excuses, our players were scattered all over the place for weeks. But the World Cup is finished now,” Galtier said after Sunday’s game.
PSG’s season will ultimately be defined by what happens in Europe, and another exit from the Champions League in the last 16 against Bayern -- a year after it went out to Real Madrid at the same stage -- could be very costly for Galtier.
But a deep run in Europe may make them more likely to drop points in Ligue 1, like in 2021 when it reached the Champions League semi-finals and missed out on the domestic title to Lille.
That was just the third season since the Qatari takeover of 2011 in which it has not finished as champions.
- Lens and Marseille give chase -
Halfway through this campaign, PSG is three points clear of Lens and five ahead of Marseille, which it still has to play away from home.
Lens, whose only league title to date came in 1998, has been outstanding this season under coach Franck Haise and has won 10 in a row at its rocking Stade Bollaert, where packed crowds of 38,000 are greater than the population of the town itself.
Steeped in the working-class tradition of a coal-mining region, Lens is a world away from the bright lights and glamour of Paris.
The club has a modest budget and it was forced to sell several key players in the last close season, but it is a shining example for other mid-ranking French sides of what can be achieved.
Meanwhile Marseille has put a painful exit from the Champions League in early November behind them and has won all six league games played since then.
Under Croatian coach Igor Tudor, it played with a level of intensity and urgency in its weekend win over Lorient that was in stark contrast to PSG.
It already has more points than when Marcelo Bielsa’s thrilling Marseille side topped the table halfway through the 2014/15 season before ultimately falling away.
“We have 42 points but we are only third,” Tudor said.
“That means two other teams are doing great work. We are halfway through a marathon and we will see who can keep it going.”