2017 was a difficult year for Metz. They just about managed to avoid relegation last season, despite having the worst defence in Ligue 1, and their dealings in the summer transfer window suggested they would be in another dogfight this year. The club has a history of developing players â such as Miralem Pjanic, Sadio ManÃ© and Robert Pires â and they unearthed another gem in IsmaÃ¯la Sarr last season. The young Senegalese attacker moved to Rennes for â¬17m in the summer but Metz hardly re-invested that money, with Philipp Wollscheidâs arrival from Stoke City for â¬2.5m their biggest signing of the window. Crucially, they failed to retain the services of Cheick DiabatÃ©, who had scored eight league goals in 14 games last season while on loan from Turkish club OsmanlÄ±spor.
There were a few other arrivals in the summer â including Nolan Roux, Emmanuel RiviÃ¨re, CafÃº and Julian Palmieri â but none of them have ever excelled in Ligue 1. The talented but inexperienced centre-back Moussa NiakhatÃ© joined from Valenciennes but, in addition to the losses of DiabatÃ© and Sarr, veteran midfielders Georges Mandjeck and Cheick DoukourÃ© also left for greener pastures, leaving the clubâs well-liked manager, Philippe Hinschberger, to deal with a massive churn of players.
It was no surprise that Hinschberger did not last long, although the extent of his teamâs slump was unprecedented. By the time Hinschberger was sacked in late October, Metz had lost nine of their first 10 games in the league, leaving them six points from safety. The club replaced Hinschberger with FrÃ©dÃ©ric Hantz, who is best known for achieving successive promotions with Bastia. In his most recent job, at Montpellier, he had endeavoured to play attacking football but showed little regard for his defence, a decision that led to him being sacked last January.
If Metz were hoping for a new-manager bounce, they had to wait some time. It took Hantz nearly two months to earn his first win, a 3-1 victory at his former club, Montpellier, in mid-December, but that win has provoked the team into finding some form. They have earned 13 points in their last six matches â a total only beaten by Paris Saint-Germain. They are still last in the league â six points from the relegation play-off spot â but their 2-1 win over Nice on Saturday served as a brilliant summary of how Hantz â and a few key signings â have given them a fighting chance at a third successive season in Ligue 1.
The red card shown to Nice midfielder Pierre Lees-Melou in the first half certainly helped their cause, but Metz were more than good value for the win even when both sides were at full strength. Hantz took full advantage of his playersâ versatility, creating a solid platform in midfield while still maintaining a high degree of pressure on Niceâs inexperienced back-line.
With NiakhatÃ© capable of playing both as a full-back and as a centre-back, Julian Palmieri was able to push further up the pitch, providing natural width and allowing the energetic Roux (who scored both goals) to harry the back four in concert with January signing Danjiel Milicevic. The little midfielder, who is on loan from Gent, has added a dash of much-needed creativity in the centre of the park while also displaying the same level of freneticism as Renaud Cohade, who can now play slightly deeper. Behind those two, defensive midfielder Georges Mandjeck has returned, again on loan, from a difficult spell in the Czech Republic and added a robust and reliable presence in front of the defence.
Metz were at their most impressive on the right flank, where Florent Mollet â who was rarely able to get a game behind the excellent Mathieu Dossevi earlier in the campaign â has blossomed under Hantz, showing a good eye for goal and a leather-lunged ability to track back. This has allowed right-back Jonathan Rivierez to play more narrowly and maintain the back-lineâs shape, no small advantage for a team who had regularly been poor at the back. They way Hantz has cannily moulded this squad into a feisty unit with more than a dash of creativity is something to behold. Metz may still be relegated but, under Hantz, it will not be without a fight.
â¢ Lyon were coming off wins against Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco but Gustavo Poyetâs rejuvenated Bordeaux team were too much for them on Sunday. Previously weak and porous, Bordeaux were steadfast and aggressive in their 3-1 win. Nicolas de PrÃ©ville, relieved of an ill-fitting lone striker role, opened the scoring for the second game running before a brace of penalties gave Bordeaux an unassailable lead. Whether or not Poyet can cajole such displays in the long term remains to be seen but this intense performance and crucial victory was impressive.
â¢ This is just Edinson Cavaniâs fifth season with Paris Saint-Germain but he scored his 157th goal in his 229th game in their 4-0 win against Montpellier to go above Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the clubâs all-time leading scorer. His tally far exceeds third-placed Pauletaâs 109 goals from 212 games, further illustrating the clubâs transformation under Qatari ownership. Cavani has continually sacrificed the limelight for the sake of the team and was shoved out wide to accommodate Ibrahimovic. His record is imperious and his accolade is well-deserved.
â¢ When Monaco demolished Marseille 6-1 in August, it was hard to imagine that they would have swapped league positions before they met for the return fixture on Sunday night. The two teams shared four goals at the VÃ©lodrome, keeping Marseille in third and Monaco in fourth. Rudi GarcÃaâs team have developed into an exciting and effective, if still flawed, unit. Monaco, meanwhile, are in danger of missing out on the Champions League altogether, having looked like title challengers in the opening weeks of the season. Not only have they failed to cope with their losses in the transfer window but they have been surpassed by the chasing pack.