PARIS — Andre Ayew scored with a towering header in first-half stoppage time as Marseille beat Saint-Etienne 1-0 at home on Sunday to head into the winter break level on points with leader Paris Saint-Germain and second-place Lyon.
The French title race is the closest among the top five leagues in Europe, with only goal difference giving PSG the edge over Lyon and third-place Marseille after 19 matches. PSG, which won 3-0 at Brest on Friday, is ahead of Lyon on goal difference. Lyon beat Nice 3-0 on Saturday.
Marseille has won its past three league games, while Saint-Etienne has failed to win and score a goal in its past six.
"For the last few games we’ve been hanging on after scoring first," Marseille coach Elie Baup said. "But there’s no doubting the unity we have in this team. Everyone pulls together."
At the end of a scrappy first half, right back Rod Fanni burst forward and whipped in a superb cross toward the penalty spot, and Ayew climbed above his marker to send a powerful glancing header past goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier.
"I think we have the quality and the players to do something good this season," Ayew said. "But we shouldn’t get carried away. When we win it’s always either 1-0 or 2-0, and we’re never really safe from the threat of a late goal. We need to start killing teams off."
Baup agrees that Marseille needs to strengthen in attack during the January transfer window.
"That’s the area we are struggling the most in and where we need to improve," said Baup, adding that he is aiming to sign two players.
In the second half, Saint-Etienne missed chances as midfielder Joshua Guilavogui saw his shot charged down by goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, who then did brilliantly to tip Pierre-Emerick Aubamyeang’s header over the crossbar.
Saint-Etienne’s goal slump has coincided with Aubameyang’s, who has not scored in seven games since being linked to some of Europe’s big clubs.
Meanwhile, Valenciennes goes into the annual break in sixth place after bouncing back from two defeats to beat struggling Evian 2-1.
Valenciennes was low on confidence after losing 2-0 away to Rennes and 4-0 at home to Paris Saint-Germain, but striker Gregory Pujol settled the nerves with an early goal. Forward Saber Khlifa equalized for the visitors in the 34th minute before midfielder Jose Saez grabbed the winner in the 75th.
"The break comes at the right time for us, because our squad was becoming a bit stretched," Valenciennes coach Daniel Sanchez said. "We’re in good shape for the second part of the season, although it will be a tough (start) for us as we have three or four away trips."
Toulouse finally remembered how to score when it beat relegation battler Sochaux 2-0 to stay in 12th place, level with on points with defending champion Montpellier.
Toulouse had not found the net in its past four games — three defeats and a draw — and the home fans were frustrated when centre half Jonathan Zebina’s header was saved by goalkeeper Simon Pouplin in the 21st.
Five minutes later, Sochaux left back Jerome Roussillon handled the ball just outside the area, and midfielder Adrien Regattin’s expertly curled freekick gave Toulouse the lead. Striker Wissam Ben Yedder went close to adding a second goal on the hour mark, before substitute forward Emmanuel Riviere wrapped up the win in the 85th when he volleyed in Etienne Didot’s pass.
Sochaux’s defeat means it drops into the relegation zone, three points behind Evian, Ajaccio and Reims.
"It was becoming quite urgent for us and we needed to get three points," Toulouse coach Alain Casanova said. "The victory was even more deserved because (Sochaux) never threatened us."