A 3-1 win at mid-table Guingamp on Saturday evening represented a welcome return to form for Olympique Lyonnais, keeping them in contention for a first Ligue 1 title since 2008. Just before the international break, Lyon lost at home to ten-man Nice – a defeat that saw them lose top spot for the first time in ten weeks.
Seven wins on the trot from the start of December had seen Hubert Fournier’s charges sweep to the top of the table, but the Nice defeat capped a run of eight games in which Les Gones picked up a paltry ten points and appeared to be surrendering the initiative in the race to be France’s top chien.
With the destination of the title in most of Europe’s prestigious leagues already a foregone conclusion, Ligue 1 is the place to go if you are looking for an exciting and compelling run in. With Lyon, PSG and Marseilles locked in a struggle at the top of the table, and fourth placed Monaco not entirely out of it, the race looks like going right down to the wire.
Given their experience and quality and a growing sense of belief – witness their impressive ousting of Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League – PSG have to be favourites to achieve a third title on the bounce. But it’s the return to competitiveness of Lyon – and Marseilles – that has been the story of a French season that has echoes of the 2013/14 edition of the Premier League.
Chasing domestic and European glory with an expensively assembled squad of stars, PSG draw an easy comparison with Manchester City. And unencumbered by European distraction and possessing squads with certain quality but questionable depth, Lyon have much in common with Liverpool.
Like Liverpool in England, Lyon could hardly be considered financial minnows in the context of French football. However, just as the Reds have struggled in the face of the super rich in the English game, Lyon have been cowed by the wealth at PSG’s disposal.
Moreover, a commercial downturn and efforts to fund a new 58,000 seat stadium, due to open in 2016, have seen the club look to reduce its wage bill by 40% over the last three seasons and forced owner Jean-Michel Aulas to rethink how success and a return to competitiveness could be achieved. His decision to focus the club’s efforts on developing its own talent rather than buying it readymade appears to be baring fruit – although more quickly than many expected.
Three-quarters of Lyon’s regular starting 11 have come through the club’s academy. And while all have played a part, it’s the goals of striker Alexandre Lacazette and attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir and the consistent quality of defensive midfielder and captain Maxime Gonalons that have most caught the eye.
Lacazette and Fekir were both on the score sheet in Saturday’s timely victory. 23-year-old Lacazette has now scored 24 goals in 27 league appearances, making him one of the hottest properties in European football, whilst fellow starlet Fekir’s 12 goals from midfield have also been pivotal in making Les Gones the league’s top scorers.
Less spectacular, but arguably just as important, to Lyon’s push has been the role played by defensive screen Gonalons – instrumental in the meanness of a defence that has only been breached 25 times in 31 fixtures.
Lyon’s cause, like Liverpool’s last season, has undoubtedly been helped by the fact that they haven’t had to play in Europe this season. However, at this stage of last term’s tussle between City and Liverpool, the men from Manchester were out of Europe and the domestic cup. So the last eight or nine games became a straight shoot out.
PSG, however, are facing into a French cup semi-final later this month and the small matter of a quarter final Champions League clash with the might of Barcelona.
That level of distraction just might help tip the balance in the favour of Lyon. PSG’s greater experience and quality should be the determining factors, just as it was for City last season. But the respective workloads of Lyon and the Parisians could be a key factor. Those of us who’ve grown tired of the domination of the super rich will hope so.