Troubled Lorient in desperate scrap to survive
By A. Scott
Following some woeful recent performances, FC Lorient require a dramatic and quick improvement in form if they are to extend their 11-year stay in Ligue 1, writes Andy Scott.
Make no mistake, the way in which Lorient capitulated in last weekend's 4-1 home defeat to Olympique de Marseille gave the impression of a side already resigned to their fate. A fourth consecutive league reverse ensured that the Brittany side remained rooted to the foot of the Ligue 1 table, a position they have occupied ever since the 1-0 defeat at Dijon FCO in October that cost Sylvain Ripoll his job as coach.
Ripoll, the former assistant to long-serving Christian Gourcuff, was replaced by ex-Marseille defender Bernard Casoni. In the wake of the defeat to OM at the Stade du Moustoir, media reports suggested Lorient were considering another change in the dugout in a bid to boost their flagging survival hopes, with assistant coach Franck Haise being touted for a promotion.
"He has our support and that of the players," hit back Lorient's vice president Alex Hayes. But Casoni has so far been unable to turn things around with Les Merlus. Bottom when he took over, he has overseen four wins in 16 games in charge. Lorient have by far the worst defensive record in the top flight, conceding more than two goals per game on average. Their current run - five straight defeats including the Coupe de France and six games without a win - suggests any momentum there was has been lost, and next up are Paris Saint-Germain.
"We are lacking confidence, for sure, and certainty in our game. When you have been bottom of the table for several months, it is difficult to let yourself go. We need to take some of the pressure off ourselves so that we can feel more liberated when we play," says the defender Wesley Lautoa.
When asked by Ligue1.com about the plight in which Lorient find themselves, Hayes, of English origin, was quick to admit that this season has not gone to plan but remains bullish about their survival prospects.
"We are obviously very disappointed to be last. We all felt we had, and still do have, a squad good enough to not be down at the bottom. But it can't be a coincidence. It has been a season to forget but we are still in it and we'll be fighting to the end. We have a big game against Paris but after that there are nine more games which are more winnable," he said.
'Optimistic but realistic'
Lorient are currently six points from outright safety with 10 games left, and five adrift of the relegation play-off place. They have the same number of points as Toulouse did at the same stage 12 months ago. Toulouse were 10 points from safety then but still pulled off a great escape. However, RC Lens, FC Metz and FC Sochaux-Montbéliard were all relegated in the two seasons prior to that after having 22 points from their first 28 games.
However, the introduction of a play-off gives Lorient extra hope.
"The play-off is relevant. We would probably sign up for that at this stage," said Hayes. "But we haven't given up. We are optimistic but realistic. We need to go on a run. Do we have the players to do that? Yes. We feel it's doable. It's up to the players now. I believe they can do it."
There is quality in Casoni's squad, but equally Lorient have been damaged by the constant drain of talent away from the club. Last summer they lost Raphaël Guerreiro to Borussia Dortmund and Didier Ndong to Sunderland, two standout performers.
They reached the relatively giddy heights of seventh in 2010 with a squad containing the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Jérémy Morel, Morgan Amalfitano and Kévin Gameiro. That quartet promptly moved on, and the list of players to have come and gone since then is impressive. Here are a few: Bruno Ecuele Manga, Lamine Koné, Alaixys Romao, Francis Coquelin, Kévin Monnet-Paquet, Joel Campbell, Benjamin Corgnet, Mario Lemina, Vincent Aboubakar, Jordan Ayew.
Throw in the departure of the iconic Gourcuff in 2014 and the decline was perhaps inevitable. Needless to say the fans are unhappy, and crowds have declined too, steadily decreasing from an average of 15,643 in 2011-12 to less than 11,000 this season.
But at the start of this season Lorient still had faith in Ripoll, who had extended his contract in January last year.
"Would we have wanted things to work out differently? Yes. That's why we gave Sylvain Ripoll a three-year deal," said Hayes. "To lose eight of our first 10 matches would put any coach anywhere in the world in a difficult situation. We've carried the burden of that ever since the 11th round of games."
But are Lorient braced for the possibility of relegation and the readjustments that would be required in the event of a drop down to Ligue 2?
"A club like ours has to have systems in place if we go down. But that fact is we are not thinking about what would happen if we went down. All our efforts are focused on staying up," insisted Hayes.