A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Oddly enough for a man with a name as innately attractive as Alain Casanova, the Toulouse manager is having a hard time making people fall in love with his purple-shirted team even though they currently sit top of Ligue 1 with a 100 per cent record after the season’s opening three games.
“It’s not the moment to get carried away. There is still a lot of work to do,” he said, pouring cold water on a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Arles-Avignon, which was played out in scorching temperatures on Saturday afternoon.
Admittedly, Toulouse’s impressive run in Le Championnat has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Two of their three wins this season have come against newly promoted opposition, and sandwiched between that pair was a not to be snubbed at 2-1 success away to Bordeaux last weekend, although the 2009 champions haven’t been the same team since those bungling idiots at the French Football Federation first reached out in earnest to Laurent Blanc.
Even so, the circumstances surrounding Toulouse’s early rise to the summit of the French game make for quite a fascinating story, for this is a team that hasn’t been top since September 11, 2004 and was in France’s Third Division only eight years ago. Le Téfécé are Ligue 1’s Yo-Yo club extraordinaire, consistent only in their own inconsistency.
After tying a 20-year-old club record with a third place finish in 2007, Toulouse frustratingly dropped to 17th the following season. And far from being an anomaly that undulating rollercoaster of a trend continued apace in 2009, when Casanova led his side to fourth spot, only for them to plummet to 14th a year later.
Second season syndrome is evidently what passes for Groundhog Day in the Haute-Garonne. “We have considerable potential in this squad,” said Mauro Cetto, the club’s 28-year-old Argentine captain. “We could really claim to be a lot better without this chronic inconsistency. We need to be a force again and one with the spirit of revenge.”
This season will undoubtedly be a measure of that squad’s promise given it hasn’t really changed at all in the last year. But in many ways Toulouse are an example to follow, especially in terms of youth development.
No fewer than 12 players in the current first team squad have come through the club’s fertile academy, making up 43 per cent of the whole, the most notable graduates being Moussa Sissoko, Étienne Capoue and Cheikh M’Bengué.
An emphasis on youth has also been borne out on the transfer market. Adrian Gunino, an exciting 21-year-old right-back, has arrived on loan from Danubio Montevideo following an impressive showing for Uruguay at the Under-20 World Cup in Egypt last year. And he is joined by an enigmatic young midfielder called Wissam Ben Yedder, who represented France at Futsal while playing for amateur side Alfortville only last year.
“Of course we would have liked to have had a little more support in some positions, but it’s also a choice,” Casanova explained in July. “We neither have the desire nor the need to completely transform ourselves. What we want is to keep the spine of the team that has been here for two years.”
Unfortunately for Casanova, he won’t get that chance at least as far as André-Pierre Gignac is concerned. Toulouse’s star striker left for Marseille last week, realising a boyhood dream in the process. “I have always wanted to play for OM,” he told L’Équipe on Saturday. “I thought back to the matches that I have gone to see at the Vélodrome. A match against Lens. Dugarry scored. We won 1-0. I am a Marseille supporter.”
After last month likening Gignac to a pot of yoghurt to illustrate the fact the 24-year-old didn’t have “a sell-by date”, Toulouse president Olivier Sadran now just has nine days to find a replacement. Xavier Pentecôte was supposed to fill that role after returning on loan from Bastia where he scored 12 goals in 15 games last season only to suffer a knee injury that will keep him out of action for six months.
Former Sunderland and Manchester United reject David Bellion may yet arrive on loan from Bordeaux, but the favourite remains Nolan Roux, the inspiration behind Brest’s promotion-winning campaign. For now, though, Toulouse seem to be coping just fine without Gignac, partly because they had to get used it last season on account of his chronic groin problems.
Daniel Braaten, ‘the Norwegian Koala’ who Bolton fans may remember from a woeful spell at the Reebok two years ago, has been moved from a position out wide to centre-forward with unexpected success. He has scored three goals in three games since the start of the season and five in his last seven appearances. The Braatman is now just seven goals shy of becoming the all-time top scoring Norwegian in Ligue 1 history, which is some accolade considering the competition from John Carew and Thorstein Helstad. Wink wink.
How long Toulouse can maintain their streak remains to be seen. Their form is no sudden blip, as they were unbeaten in eight pre-season friendlies, even defeating champions Marseille 4-2. But Braaten, for instance, surely can’t be expected to be anything more than a stop-gap, not with Coca-Cola kid Colin Kazim-Richards gone, and Soren Larsen - the Danish Peter Crouch - as his only back up. Braaten’s highest season tally even in Norway was just nine, so it’s debatable whether Toulouse will score enough goals to stay in the top four.
September will go some way to answering those questions, as Saint-Étienne, Monaco and Lille all appear on the horizon. Toulouse have been well organised and miserly under Casanova, his back four being one of the top two in Ligue 1 in each of his two years at the helm.
Le Téfécé’s penchant for the smash and grab, as illustrated in Braaten’s three goals coming from just four shots on target, has unfortunately resulted in the word “vulgar” being used to describe their brand of football, even if objectively it’s just efficient. After all, the modern game is results-oriented, and the realist in Casanova knows that seduction must always come second to silverware.
Whatever the reception his team gets up and down L’Hexagone, the 49-year-old feels no urgent need to go on a charm offensive. Given France’s ‘Big Three’ all recorded their first wins of the campaign this weekend, Toulouse are just happy to have a cushion on which they can now rest, although Casanova, ever the smooth-talker that he is, would prefer to call it “a little mattress” and quite right too, the saucy devil.
Goal of the Week – Gaël Danic vs Auxerre
Valenciennes got used to seeing their side play some effervescent football last season, but Philippe Montanier has adopted a more restrained style this term. Somehow though, even he couldn’t hold back his captain, Gaël Danic, who fizzed a dipping fastball wickedly across Auxerre’s despairing goalkeeper Olivier Sorin from a distance closer to the half way line than the penalty area.
Latest transfer talk – Yoann Gourcuff to Lyon
L’Équipe claims Yoann Gourcuff held a meeting with Bordeaux president Jean-Louis Triaud on Saturday afternoon accompanied by his lawyer Didier Poulmaire to declare his intention to join Lyon before the end of the transfer window. Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas said only last week that Gourcuff would be the “ideal player” for his side who look especially light in midfield, but not at the cost of €26m.
That was the minimum fee release clause stipulated in Gourcuff’s contract, but Bordeaux’s majority shareholder Nicolas de Tavernost claims it expired on July 31, making it even more difficult for Lyon to sign him. When asked on Canal + if Sunday’s game against Paris Saint-Germain would be his last in a Bordeaux shirt, Gourcuff, who was sitting on the bench, simply said: “We’ll see.”
The key issue – Loïc Rémy’s heart defect
Thursday was scripted to be the greatest day of Loïc Rémy’s fledgling career. Instead, it turned out to be arguably the darkest. The 23-year-old Nice striker, who had been linked with several Premier League clubs this summer, had agreed to move to French champions Marseille in a €15.5m transfer and was due to be formally unveiled to the media.
After that event was cancelled not once, but twice, it was revealed that a medical had brought to light a hitherto undiagnosed heart defect. “I am a bit annoyed but it is my health after all and obviously we must look into it,” Rémy said on Friday. “The real shame is that these tests did not take place before. It was necessary for me to come to a club like Marseille to have tests which are more in depth.”
More tests will be carried out on Monday, but given the League has made routine cardiograms a requirement since 2004, it begs the question, especially in light of the deaths of Marc-Vivien Foé, Dani Jarque and Antonio Puerta, why Nice were apparently unaware of his condition and whether their medicals are sufficient? Hopefully, further cardiograms will show Rémy’s condition to be treatable or manageable and Kanu’s long career should serve as an inspiration.
RESULTS Sat Aug 21 Toulouse 2-1 Arles-Avignon, Rennes 0-0 Saint-Etienne, Nice 1-1 Nancy, Lens 2-2 Monaco, Marseille 2-0 Lorient, Lyon 1-0 Brest, Auxerre 1-1 Valenciennes Sun Aug 22 Montpellier 0-0 Caen, Sochaux 0-0 Lille, PSG 1-2 Bordeaux
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