When the time comes for European football fans to reflect on the 2011-12 title races in their respective countries, the Easter weekend may well come to be seen as a key staging post. It saw Manchester United establish what is likely to be an unassailable eight-point lead in England, while Juventus leapfrogged Milan to the top of the Serie A table and Barcelona closed to within four points of Real Madrid in Spain after José Mourinho's side were held to a 0-0 draw by Valencia.
In France, however, the identity of this season's champions remains no clearer. Montpellier's 2-1 defeat of Sochaux on Saturday momentarily gave them a three-point lead at the summit - with a game in hand - but Paris Saint-Germain erased their title rivals' advantage by edging traditional enemies Marseille 2-1 at Parc des Princes on Sunday night.
PSG have become renowned for beating teams by force of will rather than by the brilliance of their play this season and the victory over Marseille was no different. The visitors enjoyed 54 per cent of possession, had 14 shots on goal to the hosts' seven and could have returned south with a point had Benoît Cheyrou not blazed a glorious chance to equalise over the crossbar in the 81st minute.
PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti fielded Jérémy Menez, Nenê and Javier Pastore in a strikerless 4-3-3 formation, but while Ancelotti said Menez was "fantastic" and Nenê had a hand in both goals, Pastore was disappointing again and found himself substituted in the 67th minute to a smattering of whistles from the stands. The match-changing displays of the autumn have faded and the Argentine is in danger of becoming to the Qatar Sports Investment project what Robinho was to the Sheikh Mansour era at Manchester City.
For all their star quality in attack, it was a centre-back who opened the route to victory for Ancelotti's side. No sooner had André Ayew cancelled out Menez's sixth-minute opener than Alex rose to meet Nenê's corner with a strong header in the 61st minute that would ultimately secure the three points despite Mohamed Sissoko's late dismissal (his second in four matches) for a second yellow card.
Alex's goal brought PSG's run of four games without a win to an end but the massive investment behind their title challenge is still not being reflected in the quality of their football. "What more do we need to do?" asked goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in the mixed zone. "You can't forget about our opponents. The problem when you're PSG is that the other teams are always more motivated. It's normal, because we're the most high-profile team."
Montpellier's lower profile means that they are able to prepare for their matches in relative serenity and they will approach Wednesday's game in hand at Marseille knowing that a win would put them three points clear with seven matches to play. They could not ask for a better time to visit Stade Vélodrome either. Didier Deschamps protested that the loss to PSG was "unfair" but OM have now gone 11 games without a win and they are likely to have more than half an eye on Saturday's Coupe de la Ligue final against Lyon, which represents their final chance to save a desperate season.
PSG's agitation is not helped by the air of calm emanating from Montpellier, who show no signs of repeating the late-season collapse of 12 months ago that saw them plummet to 14th place in the table after they won only two of their last 14 games.
Olivier Giroud and his team-mates have only recently begun to discuss the title as a realistic objective but they are starting to enjoy their role as the unwelcome thorn in PSG's side. At a recent conference about the future of French football, PSG sporting director Leonardo sparked controversy by accusing his club's domestic rivals of devoting all their training sessions to "toros [piggy in the middle] and shots at goal". When asked how his side had prepared for the game against Sochaux, Montpellier coach René Girard smiled and replied: "By doing toros all week." PSG may loom large in Montpellier's rear-view mirror, but they are clearly not the intimidating sight that Leonardo would like to think.
OPTA'S EUROPEAN TEAM OF THE WEEK: