AS Saint-Etienne and Stade Rennais FC meet in a top-of-the-table clash on Saturday, so what is behind the sides’ successful start to the new campaign?
AS Saint-Etienne - Stade Rennais FC (Saturday at 1700 CET, 1500 GMT)
Both sides come into Round 5 with 10 points from a possible 12, having recorded three wins and a draw so far. For Rennes it is simply a continuation of their fine form last season which allowed them to claim a podium finish for the first time in their history and qualify for the UEFA Champions League as a result. But for Saint-Etienne it has been much more surprising, with Les Verts having spent the last campaign struggling in the lower reaches of the table.
Les Verts: Radical overhaul with accent on youth
The outlook was not especially bright at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard coming into this season, even if Puel’s team had run Paris Saint-Germain close in the delayed final of the Coupe de France, played in July.
But, coming into his first full season as general manager with sweeping powers, Puel decided to radically overhaul his squad. Skipper Loïc Perrin retired, goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier was frozen out, Yann M’Vila was allowed to leave for Olympiakos, Yohan Cabaye and Loïs Diony moved on too. Ryad Boudebouz and Wahbi Khazri are no longer wanted, while William Salbia has departed for Arsenal.
Instead, Puel has promoted youth. Cameroonian midfielder Yvan Neyou, 23, and 18-year-old Adil Aouchiche were signed and have both started every game so far. Yvann Maçon and Mahdi Camara have also started every game. The average age of the Saint-Etienne starting line-up in Nantes last weekend was 21.5. That was without Wesley Fofana, the gifted 19-year-old centre-back who was missing due to a knee problem and who Puel is determined to keep despite the player being eager to move to the English Premier League.
Watch: Saint-Etienne blow two-goal lead at Nantes
The experience comes from Jessy Moulin, who has been promoted to the role of first-choice goalkeeper at the age of 34, and 28-year-old defender Timothée Kolodziejczak. Denis Bouanga, at 25, is a comparative veteran and Saint-Etienne’s main goal threat.
Puel’s side won each of their opening three games by a 2-0 margin, at home to FC Lorient and RC Strasbourg Alsace and then away at Olympique de Marseille. They were 2-0 up away at FC Nantes last weekend before tiring and having to settle for a 2-2 draw, and that late collapse serves as a warning.
“All of a sudden the spotlight is on several of our players and on the team in general. That exposure can be a danger,” admitted Puel. “We had a busy run of matches last week and some of the players were tired. There are players who have been coming back from injury and who we have not yet been able to use much. We have asked for a lot from certain players, even if we are only four games in. So we need to be wary. Some of these players are only just starting out as professionals at this level. Four matches really is nothing. If after three more games we are down in the bottom half of the table, there will be less interest. We just need to stay focused on our own game.”
Rennes see 'keeper Mendy depart
Rennes started the season by coming from behind to draw 1-1 away to LOSC despite playing most of that game with 10 men. Since then they have beaten Montpellier Hérault SC (2-1) and won 4-2 away at Nîmes Olympique before coming from behind to beat AS Monaco 2-1 last weekend with teenage debutant Adrien Truffert scoring a last-gasp winner.
Such a start has only increased excitement levels among Rennes fans who are hopeful their team can again challenge towards the top of the table and also compete well in their debut Champions League campaign - the group-stage draw for which takes place next Thursday.
Rennes have added new faces in forwards Serhou Guirassy from Amiens SC and Martin Terrier from Olympique Lyonnais, as well as Moroccan defender Nayef Aguerd from Dijon FCO. Those three players have cost a reported combined total of €32 million, but the Brittany side are set to spend more money between now and the closure of the transfer window on October 5, with a club-record move for Lyon’s Jeff Reine-Adelaïde in the pipeline too.
Watch: Truffert gets late Rennes winner on dream debut
Meanwhile, goalkeeper Edouard Mendy was this week sold to Chelsea for a fee believed to be in the region of €25 million, but Eduardo Camavinga - arguably the hottest young talent in European football - is set to stay for at least one more season.
“We have lost a very good goalkeeper, and a great man, who was very important in the dressing room,” said Stéphan of Mendy. “But despite my disappointment at losing him I am delighted for him at getting this opportunity.”
Of Saturday’s opponents, the Rennes coach added: “They have had a great start to the season. They have great energy in their team, they get up and down and they are good in the transitions. They are a dangerous side, on a good run, so it will be a really interesting game.”
The game will be played behind closed doors following the government’s announcement this week of further restrictions in parts of France because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Saint-Etienne: Moulin (c); Moueffek, Moukoudi, Kolodziejczak, Maçon; Camara, Youssouf; Nordin, Bouanga, Aouchiche; Hamouma
Rennes: Salin; Soppy, Da Silva (c), Aguerd, Traoré; Bourigeaud, Nzonzi, Camavinga; Del Castillo, Guirassy, Terrier