A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
There is no doubt the teams to have shone brightest in Ligue 1 so far this season have been Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain.
The former may not have started the campaign with the media’s attention fixed upon them, but after Élie Baup’s team became the league-leaders and then the first side in over 50 years to win their first six games – a statistic that came to an end at the weekend – everyone was talking about them.
The latter, in contrast, were well and truly in the spotlight from the very beginning – indeed, even before the start of the season. With their superstar line-up, scintillating individual displays from the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and youngster Marco Verratti and increasingly cohesive team performances, Carlo Ancelotti’s PSG team have also enjoyed the limelight.
But two clubs that have perhaps not garnered as much attention are Lyon and Bordeaux, the teams sitting in third and fifth place respectively. And considering their form so far this term, it is remarkable that they have been largely overlooked.
Before this weekend, Rémi Garde’s Lyon were unbeaten. Les Gones had won four of their six league games and had drawn the other two. Before matchday seven, Lyon occupied a higher standing than the club many had predicted to win the league this term, PSG, by climbing to second place in the Ligue 1 table.
This fact may not have been surprising a few years ago but considering Lyon’s recent off-the-pitch financial woes, their on-pitch results have been all the more unexpected.
Lyon were the powerhouse of French football for much of the Noughties. On the pitch, the club enjoyed unprecedented success, winning consecutive league titles between 2002 and 2008.
Off of the pitch, club president Jean-Michel Aulas had implemented a highly successful business model. Lyon bought promising players at relatively little cost, nurtured and gave them a platform in the form of the Champions League to showcase their skills and then sold many of the same players for a huge profit. Players such as Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra are prime examples. With Europe’s elite football competition providing Lyon with a vital source of income, the club remained competitive. But it wasn’t to last.
Aulas’ business model may have proved successful for several years, but the club lost money on failed big-money signings. Lyon’s sporting achievements then suffered under Claude Puel, who failed to bring a title to the Stade de Gerland during his three-year tenure as manager. And even though Garde came in and helped steer the club to the Coupe de France trophy last term, the fact Les Gones then failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 13 years meant their financial situation became somewhat precarious.
Something had to change – and quickly. For Aulas that meant offloading the high-earners. After lambasting the performances of certain players, in particular the "pharaohs and the dinosaurs" of the dressing room - players such as Cris, Ederson, Kim Källström, Aly Cissokho and Jeremy Pied - were sold, in addition to Hugo Lloris, bringing in a total of nearly €30 million.
Aulas then bought several players on the cheap with Milan Bisevac, Fabian Monzon, Steed Malbranque – who returned to the Gerland after 11 years – and Arnold Mveumba all joining in the summer. With Lyon trying to stick to a one-in/one-out policy, the club spent less than €10 million on transfer fees before the start of this season.
Although Lyon’s financial situation looked healthier coming into this campaign, with all of the changes occurring at the club, it is little wonder that many did not expect Lyon to be sitting below Marseille and above PSG in the league table ahead of matchday seven.
But amid a lack of expectation, Garde’s players have stepped up to the challenge on the pitch. Clément Grenier has thrived in the absence of the injured Yoann Gourcuff, while Michel Bastos has responded to criticism from Aulas with several excellent displays in front of goal. Bafétimbi Gomis and Lisandro López have also been important offensively with both players, like Bastos, having scored three goals thus far. And while there has been an element of luck in Lyon’s results so far this term, such as the 1-1 draw in Lille, the team have performed well.
No doubt then, Lyon have to be commended for remaining unbeaten in the league before this weekend. But it was unlikely to last forever.
Last weekend, Bordeaux inflicted the first loss of the campaign on Les Gones after defeating them 2-0 at the Gerland. Francis Gillot’s team – who came into the game unbeaten like Lyon – may have lined up defensively against the hosts but thanks to goals from Benoît Trémoulinas and Cheick Tidiane Diabaté, some excellent goalkeeping from Cédric Carrasso, missed chances and a goal ruled out for the home side, it was Bordeaux who walked away with all three points.
Here was a team who, like Lyon, had received relatively little attention in the French league thus far even though they were – and still are – unbeaten. Here was a team that, like Lyon, were surprising many Ligue 1 enthusiasts.
It wasn’t just that Bordeaux had won three games and drawn four – including a stalemate against PSG at the Parc des Princes. No, what was astounding many about Bordeaux was the team’s consistent form on the field since the beginning of 2012.
Gillot's men have not lost any of their 14 Ligue 1 games since a 1-0 defeat at Caen in April, and are unbeaten in their last 17 competitive matches. In 2012 so far, only champions Montpellier and big-spending PSG have picked up more points than Bordeaux.
Such statistics are incredible, even more so when one considers the turbulence at the Stade Chaban-Delmas during the past few years.
In 2009, Bordeaux were crowned the Ligue 1 and Coupe de la Ligue champions. With the team taking their good form into the new season, things then started to go wrong. Rumours began circulating about the impending departure of the then-Bordeaux manager, Laurent Blanc, for the France national team post. With speculation also rife about the departure of striker Marouane Chamakh to English side, Arsenal, Bordeaux suffered a sensational dip in form in the second half of the 2010/11 campaign, which eventually saw them relinquish their title to Marseille and fail to qualify for European football.
Blanc, Chamakh and midfield maestro Gourcuff eventually left the South-West of France for pastures new. The club replaced Blanc with Jean Tigana but he failed to get Les Girondins back on track and challenging for the title again. The former Bordeaux and France player lasted less than a full season in charge, eventually leaving the Chaban-Delmas four games before the end of that season.
With no permanent manager and their lowest league finish since 2005 (seventh), Francis Gillot was brought in from Sochaux to steady the ship. While it took the former Lens player and coach some time to implement his ideas and get the team winning again, since they did, Bordeaux have not looked back.
The club finished in a surprising fifth place last season after winning their last six league matches to pip Saint-Étienne and Rennes to the Europa League spots.
Gillot has openly admitted that doing well in Europe is the team’s focus this season. Lyon may have a different aim to Bordeaux this season, that is, ensuring they qualify for the Champions League, but similar to Les Girondins, Garde’s men have thrived with the spotlight fixed on clubs such as PSG and Marseille instead.
Naturally then, the clash between Lyon and Bordeaux at the weekend was always going to be intriguing. Two teams with two different stories, united by their unbeaten streak, facing each other in the league. Gillot’s side may have been the team to leave the Gerland still unbeaten, but with relatively little attention on both clubs, even now, Lyon and Bordeaux are the sides to watch as they continue on their respective quests this season.
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