Hexagoal Ligue 1 Trophy


Publish on 04/05/2019 at 00:00 - S. WILLIS


Lyon's worst nightmare could turn into reality as impressive Saint-Etienne threaten to pip their arch-rivals to the final Champions League spot, writes Matthew Spiro.

PSG have wrapped up the title and Lille look good for second, but the race for third place – and the final qualifying berth for Europe's elite – is going to provide plenty of intrigue over the coming weeks. With Lyon wobbling and Saint-Etienne in sensationally good form, Les Verts have pulled to within three points of their eternal enemy and their fans are rubbing their hands at the prospect of a tantalising run-in.

Whisper it quietly, and certainly don’t let Jean-Michel Aulas hear you, we might even be witnessing a shift in power in southeast France.

There was a time when Les Verts dominated this rivalry with such embarrassing ease the club's emblematic president Roger Rocher declared that Lyon "will always be a suburb of Saint-Etienne when it comes to football". That was in the 60s and 70s, though. Rocher's cheeky theory was definitively disproved in the early 2000s, when OL won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles. Yet Saint-Etienne – who clinched the last of their 10 crowns in 1981 – have become a well-run club again.

In 2013/14, Christophe Galtier ensured Saint-Etienne finished above Lyon for the first time in 21 years. But they came fourth that year and had to settle for Europa League football. Should Jean-Louis Gasset's charges finish in the top three, it would represent a truly historic achievement for the club whose folklore was founded on its incredible exploits in Europe's leading club competition.

Beating them at their own game?

What may concern Lyon fans even more is the fact Saint-Etienne are threatening to beat them at their own game. Lyon's heyday came about because the club was impeccably run. Their best teams were pieced together through carefully planned recruitment and the integration of talented, grounded academy products. This season, Lyon's bullish president Aulas appears to have taken his eye off the ball. Star names like Nabil Fekir and Memphis Depay have at times looked disinterested, emerging talents such as Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombélé appeared to get carried away with the hype surrounding their early-season performances. Meanwhile, the circus surrounding Bruno Genesio's future clearly unsettled the team. 

Sixty kilometres up the road, Saint-Etienne are presenting themselves as a far more united front. Last weekend, after the team had beaten Toulouse to make it five wins a draw from their last six games, the club's passionate, long-suffering supporters stayed behind to celebrate the youth team's victory in the Coupe Gambardella. For it is not only the first team that is on the up. The club is flourishing at junior level too, and the emergence this season of centre-back William Saliba is testament to that.

Saliba the rising star

Saliba, an 18-year-old who has all the assurance of a young Raphaël Varane, led the party on the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard pitch, parading the prestigious silverware and dancing with his peers. Having started the season in the Under-19s, Saliba's accelerated rise to the senior set-up is a great example for the other talented kids, of which Saint-Etienne have many right now.

Gasset, it should be said, is an extremely canny manager too and he will ensure the Paris-born Saliba keeps his feet on the ground. The way the coach has turned the team around over the past 18 months deserves enormous praise. For so long the man in the shadows – Gasset was Laurent Blanc's assistant with Bordeaux, France and PSG – his qualities as a man-manager are now being thrust to the fore. Quizzed on Saliba's huge potential, Gasset played down the teenager's impressive displays. "Yes, he looks assured," Gasset noted, "but this is because he has Loïc Perrin next to him...and he has Mathieu Debuchy to his right and Timothée Kolodziejczak to his left...he has Yann M'Vila and Youssef Aït Bennasser in front of him. These are guys who know what they're doing."

In keeping Saliba out of the limelight, Gasset is highlighting, indirectly, the intelligent manner in which this team has been constructed. Perrin is the stalwart and the team is built around him, but Debuchy and Kolodziejczak have been superb signings. M'Vila's career had been meandering until Gasset got hold of the former France international – now he is one of the best holding players in the country once more.

They have a solid spine and right now they have momentum too. With Lyon facing tough games against Lille and Marseille before the season is out, Saint-Etienne have a realistic chance of clinching that Champions League place. Win away to Monaco on Sunday, and the pressure will be very much on OL. What is clear is that the next few weeks represent a thrilling challenge for Les Verts...and a serious test of nerve for Les Lyonnais.