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Montpellier and PSG launch Ligue 1 title run-in
With the bulk of this weekend's Ligue 1 fixtures moved back to make room for Saturday's League Cup final, Sunday will see the title run-in between leaders Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain begin in earnest.
Montpellier's 3-1 win at Marseille on Wednesday -- sealed with a stunning scissors kick from man-of-the-match Younes Belhanda -- took Rene Girard's side three points clear of second-placed PSG with seven matches remaining.
Intriguingly, Montpellier and PSG will both face the same five sides over the course of their run-ins -- Auxerre, Lorient, Valenciennes, Rennes and defending champions Lille.
Both teams face clubs threatened by relegation on Sunday, with Montpellier travelling to Lorient, who slipped into the bottom three last weekend, before PSG visit bottom club Auxerre.
Victory for Montpellier at Stade du Moustoir would put them six points clear of PSG by the time Carlo Ancelotti's side take to the field at Auxerre in the day's late game.
After weeks of downplaying their objectives, Montpellier's players are now unequivocal about their dreams of winning the first Ligue 1 title in the club's history.
"We're very determined and focused, and we've been more or less spared by injuries," said Ligue 1 top scorer Olivier Giroud, who claimed his 19th goal of the season at Marseille.
"We can't hide it anymore -- our belief in the title is as strong as iron."
Girard has pledged to inject "a bit of freshness" into the team that won at Marseille, with young forwards Remy Cabella and Karim Ait-Fana and holding midfielder Benjamin Stambouli all candidates for a starting place.
Having finished seventh in 2009-10 and 11th last season, Lorient have been sucked into the bottom three by a run of form that has seen them win just one of their last 16 Ligue 1 games.
Christian Gourcuff's side are only a point from safety though, whereas Auxerre are six points below 17th-placed Ajaccio ahead of the visit of PSG.
With fixtures against Marseille and Montpellier awaiting on the final two weekends of the season, coach Jean-Guy Wallemme knows there is no time to lose.
"Everyone has been affected by the fact that the club are bottom of the table and have been going through a bad patch for some time," said Wallemme, who replaced Laurent Fournier last month.
"We want to put smiles back on peoples' faces and instil some confidence. With so little time, we are going to have to win most of our games."
PSG ended a sequence of four games without a win by beating arch rivals Marseille 2-1 last weekend, despite a late red card for Mohamed Sissoko.
With Lille having fallen 10 points off the pace following a 3-1 loss at Brest, the big-spending side from the capital are now braced for a two-horse race to the finish on May 20.
"We're going to fight until the end to turn things around," vowed Brazilian left-back Maxwell, a January signing from Barcelona.
"Now we're chasing and we're in a real fight with Montpellier. It's war. And we can't afford any more mistakes.
"Not being champions would be a disappointment. We have a responsiblity to win. It's the ambition of the club, the players and the supporters."
Lille host Ajaccio on Saturday, while their main rivals for third place, Lyon, will visit fifth-placed Toulouse on Wednesday after contesting the year's first piece of silverware in Saturday's League Cup final with Marseille.
Sunday (1500GMT unless otherwise stated):
Lille v Ajaccio, Lorient v Montpellier, Nancy v Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne v Brest, Sochaux v Dijon, Valenciennes v Evian, Auxerre v Paris Saint-Germain (1900GMT)
Rennes v Nice
Marseille v Caen, Toulouse v Lyon
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