Long wait over at last for Saint-Etienne
By D. Crossan
After 32 years of hurt Saint-Etienne at last got back on the trophy trail, local lad and one-club man Loïc Perrin lifting the Coupe de la Ligue after an assured team performance from Les Verts at the Stade de France.
Man-of-the-match Brandão - the only Saint-Etienne starter born before the club's most-recent Ligue 1 title in 1981 - took the headlines after maintaining his formidable record in the competition, having also won the trophy with Olympique de Marseille in 2010 and 2012. He'd scored the winning goal in last season's final as OM beat Olympique Lyonnais 1-0 when he came on as a substitute and managed the only goal once more in 2013 playing from kick-off.
"Removal man": Unorthodox but effective
The Brazilian's unorthodox style has been massively effective for Christophe Galtier's team all season long, justifying the club's decision to sign him when OM chose to let him go last summer. Indeed, Wednesday evening's Coupe de France quarter-final against Lorient, in which Brandão returned to action after a two-game ban, was the first defeat Galtier's men had endured in a match the 32-year-old had started since joining and Saint-Etienne's first loss in all competitions this calendar year.
The 1m89 forward's physical attributes - seeing him labelled a “removal man” for his ability to rough up defences and shift them around by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's father Pierre - have abetted the club's top scorer. Freed from having to act as the attacking pivot the Gabonese attacker's movement and pace from wider, deeper starting positions act as a perfect foil to Brandão's toil. Add in Yohan Mollo's skill and trickery and this attacking triumverate are going to cause problems for any defence.
The lethalness of the combination was illustarted perfectly for Saint-Etienne's 18th minute winner. Mollo flipped the ball wide to the left to Aubameyang, who is described as ASSE's Usain Bolt by midfielder Renaud Cohade. Olympic sprint champion Bolt had posed in a Rennes shirt in the build-up to the game but would surely have admired Aubameyang's fleetness of foot and the outside-of-the-boot cross which eluded Benoit Costil and was turned in by the gleeful Brandão for his ninth goal in his last 13 appearances in all competitions. Aubameyang and Mollo switched wings frequently making them difficult to track for the Rennes defence and from an Aubameyang right-wing cross Brandão had an unmarked header saved by Costil.
Féret kept down by neutrals' favourites
Rennes have not won a game since their brightest attacking talent Romain Alessandrini suffered a horrendous knee injury against Lille in Week 25 and with Les Verts midfielders Cohade, Josuha Guilavogui and Rennes youth system product Fabien Lemoine playing in a disciplined fashion the Breton club were unable to get Julien Féret and Jonathan Pitroipa - their most creative players - on the ball. Crossword fan Féret was unable to find the solution as Saint-Etienne were across the playmaker's threat apart from the occasional scare from dead balls as Rennes centre-half John Boye threatened with his aerial prowess.
A tight-knit squad, as evidenced by their viral Harlem Shake video, Saint-Etienne have thrilled French football watchers all season long, becoming the neutrals' favourites in the process. Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti acknowledged that fact pre-match by saying the only non-Rennes fans who would be backing the Breton club in their quest to end a 42-year trophy drought would be from Antonetti's native Corsica and from Lyon, home to Saint-Etienne's local rivals.
Ivan Curkovic was the previous Saint-Etienne captain to lift a knockout trophy when the club won the Coupe de France in 1977. The goalkeeper's advice to Perrin was simply not to drop the bauble and when the big moment came the centre-half's sure handling would have pleased the Les Verts legend. The Stade de France's south stand reverberated as the Saint-Etienne fans celebrated, with the journey back by TGV, coach or car certain to be unforgettable and raucous.