FC Nantes are formidable at home, Stade Rennais FC are a fearsome prospect away — what will give in Sunday's Breton derby at the Stade de la Beaujoire?
FC Nantes - Stade Rennais FC
Nantes have made their stately home much less welcoming since the arrival of Vahid Halilhodzic in the first half of the season. The former LOSC Lille and Paris Saint-Germain boss has seen his side go five games unbeaten on home turf, scoring 15 goals in that time to ease them away from the danger zone and give them a sight of the European qualifying places.
That rise was given a significant boost with Tuesday's 2-0 home defeat of Montpellier Hérault SC, the side that came into the game in fourth place and seeking a win that would have put them onto the Ligue 1 Conforama podium.
Instead, after Gaëtan Laborde's early red card had reduced the visitors to ten men, Nantes secured all three points with goals from Majeed Waris and Nicolas Pallois.
"We had a few difficulties. We started well and created two or three opportunities to score, but after a red card, there is often a bit of a blockage," admitted Halilhodzic.
"Our opponents played deep and compact and we didn't co-ordinate our movements. But you have to know that for a lot of the lads it was the first match of the year and they lacked rhythm. But then I changed our system and our game became much quicker. We scored two absolutely deserved goals and congratulations to my players on a great win."
The only surprise was that Emiliano Sala was not among the goals. The Argentine forward — much as he was when Sergio Conceiçao arrived a couple of seasons back — has been energised by Halilhodzic's appointment, and is playing the best football of his career.
As hard-working as ever, the 27-year-old has 12 league goals already this season, matching his best-ever tally for a whole campaign, and struck his team's goal in the 1-1 draw in Rennes before Christmas. He has three strikes in his last five league outings, and has had a hand in 14 of Nantes' 26 top-flight strikes this season. Rennes need look no further for the main threat to their ambitions.
Following their dramatic midweek Coupe de la Ligue BKT penalty shoot-out defeat at AS Monaco, those hopes are now focussed on the Coupe de France, UEFA Europa League, and the domestic top flight where their prospects have brightened considerably since making a coaching change of their own.
Just four wins in his opening 15 league matches this term cost Sabri Lamouchi his job; his replacement, Julien Stéphan, is already just one victory shy of that tally despite having only overseen three league games, and knocked Nantes out of the Coupe de la Ligue BKT when they met just before Christmas.
The promotion of their reserve team coach to the top job has borne sweet fruit for the Breton club, who come into the weekend's fixtures three points ahead of their Week 20 opponents and just four adrift of the top five.
The defeat at the Stade Louis II will, however, test Stéphan's powers of motivation as he ventures into unchartered territory: having to lift his squad after the first loss of his tenure after five straight wins in all competitions.
"We lacked rhythm. It was the least dynamic performance in our last six outings. Still, we were ahead at the break and felt we could score a second if we injected a bit more rhythm. Instead, we let Monaco equalise and then they got on top of us in the shoot-out," said Stéphan, who saw his goalkeeper Tomas Koubek miss the decisive spot-kick while the Czech's Monaco counterpart Loïc Badiashile netted his to seal a heart-stopping 8-7 win.
"Now we have to look ahead to Sunday's derby against Nantes. It's going to be a huge match. We'll have to analyse this defeat and turn the page. We're not here to lament our elimination. We're professionals."
Nantes: Tătăruşanu; Kwateng, Diego Carlos, Pallois, Fabio; Touré, Khrin, Rongier (c); Waris, Sala, Lima
Rennes: Koubek; Traoré, Da Silva, Mexer, Bensebaini; Grenier, André (c); Sarr, Ben Arfa, Bourigeaud; Niang