Saint-Etienne banking on home help to handle Nantes
By I. Holyman
AS Saint-Etienne will hope their formidable home record will be enough to see off a resurgent FC Nantes in Friday's Week 15 curtain-raiser and keep them in contention for a top-three place.
AS Saint-Etienne - FC Nantes
The Stade Geoffroy-Guichard is not nicknamed 'The Cauldron' for nothing. Saint-Etienne have been beaten just once in their last 16 league matches at home, and have gone unbeaten in their first seven outings of the current campaign — a first in over a decade.
That will be of some comfort to the passionate fans of Les Verts, who saw their heroes beaten in last week's Rhône derby by Olympique Lyonnais, and then surprisingly dumped out of the Coupe de la Ligue as they lost a penalty shoot-out at Nîmes Olympique in midweek.
"The key is a win," replied coach Jean-Louis Gasset when asked how his team could get back on track after successive defeats that followed a run of just one loss and five wins in eight Ligue 1 Conforama matches.
"Before Nîmes, we were progressing. Against Angers, we had the right attitude, against Reims we were clinical and dominated, and for the derby, we did what had to be done to leave Lyon with a positive result. Now, we have moved on to something else."
WATCH: Saint-Etienne slip up in Lyon
That challenge is a Nantes team that has picked up an impressive 11 points in six league matches under new boss Vahid Halilhodzic. On a five-game unbeaten run, Nantes have struck a rich goalscoring seam, finding the net 21 times in their opening 14 games to match the tally they set at this stage of their 2000/01 title-winning season.
"We're going to play Nantes, who have become a tough opponent since Coach Vahid took charge," Gasset continued. "He has brought discipline and made some strong choices by playing fighters, because he likes players who give their all. Since he took over, they have been solid and tough to beat. They're climbing the table, but we have to win at home."
If Nantes have hauled themselves out of trouble and into tenth, six points and four places behind their Week 15 hosts, it is thanks in large part to the positive impact Halilhodzic has had on Emiliano Sala.
WATCH: Sala on fire against Toulouse
The Argentine forward comes into the weekend level at the top of the division's goalscoring chart on 11 with Paris Saint-Germain prodigy Kylian Mbappé. Seven of Sala's strikes, including a hat-trick in the Week 10 4-0 defeat of Toulouse FC, have come since Halilhodzic — a feared Nantes striker in his playing days — returned to the club.
"When I arrived, I had a discussion with every player. Some were completely down, without desire, without ambition. They told me, 'It's fine, it's fine'. When someone says that to you twice, it means they're not fine. Emiliano told me three times. I knew then that it really wasn't fine," Halilhodzic, a former coach of LOSC Lille, PSG and the Japan national team, explained.
"We spoke, I made fun of him a bit: 'You know, I played in the same position a few years ago. A Nantes striker that doesn't score 20 goals isn't a striker.' He looked at me, I don't know what he thought…We have worked. He's a fighter, a warrior. When I saw how the players carried themselves in training, I knew immediately that we'd climb up the table."
Saint-Etienne: Ruffier (cap.) – Debuchy, Subotic, Kolodziejczak, Gabriel Silva – Selnaes, M’Vila – Hamouma, Cabella, Diony – Khazri
Nantes: Tatarusanu – Kwateng, Diego Carlos (cap.), Pallois, Lima – Ab.Touré, Moutoussamy – Waris, Boschilia, Limbombe – Sala