“I’m an honest man and you’ve got to say that Marseille and Bordeaux have worked well these past two seasons. This year maybe they deserve to go all the way…”
Those truly sincere words were uttered by Lyon’s Juninho following the team’s 2-2 draw last weekend which saw the seven consecutive domestic champions lose top spot since week 4 of the Ligue 1.
There have been two very close calls for the Stade De Gerland side in its relentless grip on French football – Lens famously lost the title on the last day of the 2001/02 season (Juninho’s first season & Lyon’s first league title – coincidental? i think not) and Monaco lost its footing with 4 games to play the following year to hand Lyon its second title.
Since the onset of the 2003 season, the defending league champions have all but strolled in the domestic league withstanding timid attempts by P.S.G and Bordeaux – much to little surprise of anyone.
The 2008/09 Ligue 1 season began like the previous seasons as Lyon faced Bordeaux aiming to win its 7th successive Trophee Des Champions (a la Community Shield or Supercoppa Italia). Unlike preceding occasions, Lyon lost. Victors Bordeaux, via penalty shoot-outs, signalled their intentions to challenge Lyon at the helm for the upcoming season as they completely bossed the entire match and were justly rewarded.
With owl eyes on European glory, club Chairman Jean Michel Alaus and new manager Claude Puel strengthened the side to a tune of €60m with re-enforcements in the likes of promising talents Miralem Pjanic and Hugo Lloris. The club splashed €15 for Brazilian playmaker Ederson, apparent heir to fellow country mate Juninho, and highly rated defender John Mensah – replacement for Atletico Madrid bound Sebastian Squillaci.
Lyon recouped half of its summer transfer kitty with the sale of gifted youngsters Loic Remy and Hatem Ben Arfa to Nice and Marseille while “jet-setter” Milan Baros clocked more travel miles as he was sold to Turkish side Galatasaray. On paper Lyon looked unstoppable, on the pitch, the were unbeatable.
Carefully tucked away in the Sud-Ouest region of France, twice league runners up to Lyon (2005/06 & 2007/08), Bordeaux under the management of former French footballer and reigning Ligue 1 coach of the season Laurent Blanc just about derailed Lyon’s train as they battled with the champions till the end.
But almost doesn’t kill a bird, yet when there’s hope, there’s always whispers of a “new Zidane” in the wings, and thus Blanc brought in highly rated French playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, on loan from AC Milan. Following in his footsteps was near homophone namesake, Yoan Gouffran, (€6.5m from Caen) – both deemed necessities if the club hoped to capture its first domestic championship in a decade.
Despite not having the financial prowess to challenge Lyon, Blanc assmebled a solid lineup capable of enduring ardous campaigns (domestic & European front) and with a tad bit of luck, thwart Lyon.
“Allez Gerets, Allez Allez Gerets” rained down at the Stade Veledrome. It been half a decade since L’OM were outright leaders – Week 6 of the 2003/04 season to be exact – and light years (17 years) since L’OM were French champions, but those memories were short lived as manager Eric Gerets shrieked following Lyon’s draw against Monaco which saw his team hold a point lead in the Ligue 1 table. With 8 domestic championships as a player with Standard Liege and PSV and 5 championships as manager (Lierse, Brugge, PSV (2) and Galatasaray), Gerets is no stranger to success and the resurgence of Marseille under his helm is testament.
Football pundits and bookies put Marseille as third favorites to win the Ligue 1 title, behind Bordeaux and Lyon, rightfully so if I might add. Despite a good showing last season, the team lost influential playmaker Samir Nasri to Arsenal and prolific yet unsettled striker Djbril Cisse was loaned out to Sunderland.
Club President Pape Diouf (European football’s sole black President, much praise) stood by his vows to challenge for honors by giving manager Eric Gerets a sizable transfer kitty. The club took proclaimed dressing room “trouble maker” Hatem Ben Arfa off Lyon for €12m, diminutive pacy Ivorian foward Bakari Kone was brought in from Nice to partner runner up player of the year Mamadou Niang and veteran defender, Hilton, joined the club after 4 seasons with Lens.
Perhaps the most surprisng addition to L’OM was the loan capture of Derby County’s Tyrone Mears. The Jamaican international reportedly made his way across the channel by sneaking out the bathroom window at the club’s training ground without the consent of manager Paul Jewell. As they say, the end justifies the means, and in the case, it surely did.
Two wins, a draw and two losses. That was Bordeaux’s record after 5 games into the season. In all fairness, Blanc’s men had the hardest early fixtures as they succumbed to losses on travels to a new look P.S.G side managed by Paul Le Guen and the league’s best home team, Lille. Marouane Chamakh cancelled out Bakari Kone’s 2nd minute goal to earn Bordeaux a draw at the Stade Chaban Delmas during fifth round of games.
With 9 games played, things looked rather rosy at the L’OM camp. Along with an unblemished spot in the loss column, the team had scored 19 goals (thanks to 4 each from newcomers Kone and Ben Arfa) and were a point behind league leaders Lyon.
Blessed with the easiest start to the season, Lyon looked comfortable after 14 games despite a shocking 3-0 loss to a Mickael Pagis hat-trick away at Rennais. Claude Puel’s men had a 7 point cushion above Marseille and had only conceeded 9 goals. It was another case of Deja vu as Lyon, like fellow title hopefuls Bordeaux and Marseille, lost to P.S.G. in week 15. Midway through the season notwithstanding a slender 3 point lead over Bordeaux, Les Gones were odds on favorite.
That was then and this is now.
Undoubtedly the turning points of the Ligue 1 season were week 27 & 28. In week 27 under a Ligue 1 record crowd of 78,056 at the Stade de France, Lille defeated Lyon 2-0 with a brillant Michel Bastos chip two minutes from time. That same weekend, Toulouse hammered Bordeaux 3-0 while Marseille could only manage a goalless draw with lowly Valenciennes.
P.S.G. capitlized on everyone’s stutter with a 1-0 over Lorient narrowing the gap to a point behind Lyon. The Parc des Princes supporters were ecstatic, alas P.S.G. could really have a shout in the title race. The next week Lyon succumed to its second straight loss at the hands of Auxerre – its first since weeks 20 & 21 of the 2006/07 season, Bordeaux bounced back with a 2-1 victory over Nice while Marseille briefly derailled P.S.G title hopes with a 3-1 win.
Lyon’s 5 point lead over Marseille at the beginning of week 26 had been shrunk to 1 while Bordeaux had narrowed the gap to 3 points at the end of week 28.
Over the past 3 weeks, Bordeaux and Marseille have kept pace with Lyon. Bordeaux made light work of relegation bound Le Havre, and looked in good form as they scrapped by AS Nancy, thanks to a late strike by Chamakh. Lyon snapped its run of consecutive losses with a 2-0 win over Sochaux which was followed with a Benzema double to sink Le Mans 3-1. Marseille followed suit by trashing relegation candidates FC Nantes and AS Saint-Etienne. Over the weekend as Frederic Piquonne saved Lyon’s blushes by securing an unjust 2-2 draw against Monaco, Fernando and Wendel put Bordeaux past Auxerre. However Marseille stole the headlines with a 4-1 demolition of Grenoble to knock Lyon off the helm.
With 6 games to play, things look far more complicated for Lyon as it aims to secure another title. Next week, Benzema and Lyon travel to wine country to face Bordeaux which is followed by a tough home date against P.S.G. An away trip to Valencinnes is followed with a home tie to Nantes, both must win encounters.
Claude Puel’s future might lay at the Stade Veledrome on week 36 as Marseille welcome Lyon, a loss will all but spell the end of Lyon’s title credentials. Should Marseille fail to in its title quest against Lyon, all eyes will be on Ligue 1 revelation of the season – Andre Pierre Gignac – as Toulouse welcome Lyon to the Allée Gabriel Biénés on the final day of the season.
Marseille’s run in at the end of the season is arguably tougher than Lyon as they are still involved in the neverending UEFA CUP as Shaktar Donetsk travel into town tonight with a 2 goal lead. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Eric Gerets’ men have an almost impossible task as they travel North to Lille in week 33, a team with just one home loss all season. Next is a home fixture against Europa Cup hopefuls Toulouse followed by a massive encounter against Lyon with 2 games to spare. L’OM round out the season at home with Stade Rennais hoping to swing the 4-4 thriller in the first game of the season in its favor.
In theory, barring any abmormal results or “Tevez’s”-like West Ham miracles, Bordeaux have the easiest fixture list for the next 6 games, a reward for having the toughest fixtures at the beginning of the season. Apart from a tough home tie against Lyon next week, Laurent Blanc’s have an away postponed fixture against Stade Rennais. The final 4 games are against teams battling to avoid the drop – Sochaux and Caen – and teams with nothing to play for – AS Monaco and Valencinnes.
Lyon should count themselves quite lucky if they secure 11 points from thier last 6 games. Marseille will be very fortunate to secure draws away at Lille and at home to Lyon, and thus should come out with about 10 points. On the other hand, even if Bordeaux lose to Lyon at home, they should easily pick up about 13 points from 18, enough to secure its first Ligue 1 title since Sylvian Wiltord’s 22 goals led them to thier 5th championship – a point ahead of Marseille.
Coincedence? nah… it’s just a certain Je ne sais quoi.