Despite a winter exodus from France’s top flight, many bright sparks have emerged from the summer recruitment drive.

By Andy Ferguson

THE WINTER transfer window has seen many Ligue 1 sides strike a number of deals, but there have been little fresh faces brought in.

Known in France as the “mercato”, the main feature of the window has been the high profile departures from the top flight, with more expected to follow in the lead up to the January 31st deadline.

We have already seen Marseille striker Loic Remy and Lille full-back Mathieu Debuchy lured to the English Premier League, joining Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle United respectively.

A sorry sight for French football fans is that stars such as Montpellier captain Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Rennes’ talented, if troubled, defensive midfielder Yann M’Vila look set to join them in crossing the channel in the coming days.

Further exits include last season’s Ligue 1 joint top-scorer Nene and five time French cap Guillaume Hoarau, who have sadly departed Paris Saint-Germain for Qatar and China. Valenciennes’ homesick Brazilian defender Gil also returned to his homeland despite shining prior to the winter break.

PSG aside, most clubs have resorted to cost cutting techniques, deeming them unable to compete with more prosperous sides from across Europe’s major leagues.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for fans of Le Championnat, as a number of the summer’s arrivals have set the league alight. With the recent resumption of the second half of the campaign supporters are likely to be treated to more of the same.

Let’s take a look at some of these signings that have entertained and impressed in Ligue 1 so far this season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

It was the move that took France by storm, and PSG supporters have not been left disappointed. Hitting a staggering 19 goals in 18 appearances, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has led the Parisian revolution to the top of the Ligue 1 standings. Taking little time to settle, the 31 year-old has become the focal point of the squad, sparing Paris Saint-Germain’s blushes on a number of occasions. The team’s overreliance on the striker is evident. Having contributed 52% of his side’s goals and five assists in the league, PSG’s performances without Ibrahimovic are significantly poorer. The towering Swede hasn’t been shy of the headlines since his €20 million switch from AC Milan, with his activities ranging from two extraordinary strikes in Le Classique against southern rivals Marseille to being sent off for a kung-fu kick challenge on Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Stephan Ruffier. Zlatan’s ‘unique’ personality has already made him a number of friends and enemies in his short spell in the capital, and with it only being the half way mark more excitement will be expected.

Thiago Silva

Widely considered as one of the best centre-backs in world football, Thiago Silva’s €42 million move to PSG from AC Milan raised as many eyebrows as the Ibrahimovic deal. Despite his side’s sluggish start to the season the Brazilian took little time to adapt to his new surroundings, offering sturdiness at the heart of what was at times a shaky Parisian defence. The defender quickly overcame the lack of familiarity with his backline partners and the more-physical nature of Ligue 1 to meet expectations by the half-way point. The assured and dominant performances displayed in Italy have started to be replicated, and Silva has even been rewarded with the captain’s armband in his short stay. At only 28, Thiago Silva is expected to guide PSG to the title this campaign before greater European dominance in the future.

Romain Alessandrini

For less avid fans of French football the name Romain Alessandrini may have slipped under the radar. The Marseille born winger must be considered a bargain of last summer’s mercato. Rennes paid Clermont Foot a paltry €2.5 million for his services, and he has repaid his employers in kind. After dazzling in Ligue 2 last year, the 23 year-old has made the step up look simple, scoring seven times in his 17 league appearances. The majority of his goals have been exquisite strikes and fans are now beginning to take notice of what was previously an unknown quality. His performances in the Coupe de la Ligue have helped guide Rennes to their first final, and with three goals Alessandrini is the competition’s top scorer. With a sensational left foot and undoubted charisma, Romain Alessandrini will be a name to keep an eye on in the second half of the campaign and beyond.

Alain Traore

Noted outside of France for having a trial with Manchester United at age 17, the first half of 2012/13 has seen Alain Traore rise to prominence in Ligue 1. Lorient manager Christian Gourcuff decided to splash out €5.5 million on the 24 year-old  playmaker, who was relegated with Auxerre last term, and what a signing that has proven to be. Having shown glimpses of his quality in previous campaigns, the Burkina Faso international has added consistency to his game, becoming one of Ligue 1’s most coveted players. Blessed with the ability to score stunning left foot strikes and freekicks, Traore has contributed six goals and four assists as Lorient continue to defy the critics and sit among the European positions. Chairman Loic Fery’s decision to switch from their typically reserved methods in the transfer market seems to have been a successful gamble, but much emphasis will be placed on Alain Traore to continue his blistering form into the latter parts of the campaign.

Dario Cvitanich

When examining bargain deals, it’s hard to look beyond Nice’s €450,000 capture of Dario Cvitanich from Ajax. The 28 year-old forward has scored a remarkable 14 goals in all competitions for his new club, making him the second highest scoring Argentine in European football this season behind a certain Lionel Messi. The diminutive poacher’s contribution has even helped Nice rise from perennial relegation battlers to European contenders. Largely deployed as a second striker by his previous employers, Nice boss Claude Puel has opted to play Cvitanich as a centre forward and has reaped the benefits. Fans will desperately hope that the Argentine can guide his new side towards their first taste of European competition – the UEFA Intertoto Cup aside – since 1997/98.

Steed Malbranque

He arrived in August without so much as a whisper, but Steed Malbranque’s return to Lyon looks to be one of the shrewdest pieces of business in last summer’s mercato. Taking a 10 month sabbatical from football – having left Saint Etienne after just one game – seems to have refreshed the 33 year-old mentally. The time away has enabled Malbranque to rekindle his passion for the game and Lyon must now consider the playmaker as an indispensable asset. Manager Remi Garde’s faith in him has been repaid with seven assists and two goals so far this campaign. Having lost key players such as Kim Kallstrom, Hugo Lloris, Ally Cissokho and Chris in the summer, Lyon’s chances of success were instantly written off. However, the former Fulham and Tottenham man’s performances in the heart of midfield have brought out the best in his teammates, with Lyon maintaining a serious title challenge. His quiet and busy style has seen him labelled as France’s answer to Paul Scholes, but Malbranque has regularly been overlooked by the national side. If the Belgian-born midfielder continues his early season form then a Les Blues debut may not be inconceivable.

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