At the end of every season, the Rhône-Alpes newspaper Le Progrès looks back through the player-ratings they have collated from Lyon’s games. An average is worked out for each of them and whoever gets the highest is awarded their own version of the Ballon d’Or.
This year’s winner was the club’s playmaker Clément Grenier.
The 22-year-old from Annonay, a town just an hour or so down the road from Lyon, was worthy of the title. He had shown flashes of talent through the first half of the campaign but really caught fire as it reached its climax.
Montpellier in particular got burned. On two occasions, Grenier was the title holders’ downfall.
At the Gerland in December, he played a quick give-and-go in his own half, drove with his head up into Montpellier territory, stepping over the ball once, twice before threading Bafétimbi Gomis through to score the only goal of the game.
Then when they met again at the Mosson in April, a match Montpellier dominated, the Lyon No.7 again hit upon a way to beat them. A Grenier cross found Lisandro Lopez midway through the first half who nodded the away side into the lead. Younes Belhanda then equalised before the interval and that looked to be that.
But in the 93rd minute Grenier was prowling on the edge of the box as Yoann Gourcuff swung in a corner. Abdelhami El-Kaoutari’s clearance fell to him and on its third or fourth bounce he unleashed a thunderous left-footed drive into the roof of the net.
It was a huge goal in Lyon’s efforts to qualify for the Champions League and enough on its own to make people stand up and take note of Grenier. If they still weren’t doing so then they most certainly would be after the free-kicks he scored in back-to-back games against Nice and Rennes.
The former was “Juninhesque,” according to coach Rémi Garde. Struck from nearly 40 yards and moving in the air as it travelled into the top right corner, it really did take on the effect of those strikes that made the Lyon great Juninho Pernambucano an inspiration to Andrea Pirlo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
For Grenier to follow it up a week later with one from a similar distance, this time to the left hand-side, satisfyingly bouncing in off the underside of the bar was quite incredible and did little to discourage the hastily made Juninho comparisons.
“I’m happy that the work I’ve put in has started to pay off,” Grenier said. After the frustration of watching one hit the woodwork against Sochaux in March it certainly must have been nice for a couple to finally fly in.
Since the beginning of spring Lyon’s goalkeeping coach Joël Bats, who mentored Juninho in this regard, had been encouraging him to develop this particular part of his game much more.
“I watched a lot of videos,” Grenier told L’Équipe, “and recently I saw the Interieur Sport documentary on ‘Juni’ in New York again. I’ve always liked working on free-kicks, but in the last three months I’ve swatted up on it. It’s a little like a golfer. It’s a routine. You must always do the same movement, the same preparation.”
Lyon hope to organise a friendly against Juninho’s New York Red Bulls this summer. “I hope to be able to introduce him to his little brother,” president Jean-Michel Aulas said. In the meantime, though, Grenier is in South America with the France squad.
Called up for the first time after Samir Nasri had to pull out following a knee injury suffered in training, the Manchester City midfielder is another player Grenier has been likened to and by none other than Arsène Wenger as well.
A guest on Téléfoot a fortnight ago, the Arsenal manager told the show: “We are following him. His intelligence of play pleases me. He reminds me of Nasri.” Wenger’s words have predictably led to speculation that he is preparing a bid.
Grenier has only a year left on his current deal and has yet to sign a renewal. “[He] has told me,” Aulas revealed, “that if we qualify for the Champions League [through the third qualifying round], he will give a new contract at L’OL the priority.
“Soon we’ll meet and discuss it,” Aulas added. “He will not leave for an offer less than €37m. He is worth as much as [Mario] Götze. He is indispensable to L’OL.”
Listening to him say that, it was, at least for a brief moment, like Aulas was in the position of power he was a decade ago when Lyon were in the midst of winning seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles and able to command huge fees for their players.
Alas, after breaking with his model of buying low and selling high to spend big on transfer fees and wages to attract the likes of Lisandro and Gourcuff to the club only to then miss out on the Champions League and its revenues two years running at a time when he is also financing the construction of their new Stade de Lumières, Aulas unfortunately is not.
Unlike the case of Götze whose value was protected by a release clause in his contract, ensuring Borussia Dortmund would at least be handsomely remunerated should a club like Bayern Munich choose to pay it, Grenier is 12 months away from walking for free.
Why is that, you ask? Well, Aulas was prepared to sell Grenier to Nice only last summer. Garde persuaded him not to and the player has since proven himself. Grenier now holds the power. If he wants to leave Lyon then, considering their financial position, they will be obliged to sell rather than let his contract run all the way down and risk receiving practically nothing for a player they’ve developed. Were they to get Lisandro or Gourcuff off the payroll, then they could perhaps make Grenier a competitive offer within their wage structure.
Asked by Le Progrès if he has made a decision about his future yet, Grenier replied: “Yes. More or less. I’ll keep it to myself like I keep the discussions I have with the president and the coach to myself. I just want to say [amid reports his entourage have asked Lyon to triple his wages] that I haven’t made any demands…. My choice is above all for sporting reasons.”
Pressed whether he has chosen Arsenal, Grenier said: “Perhaps…”
Because of his contract situation, were Grenier to leave, he wouldn’t fetch the “€37m” figure Aulas claims he’s after, more like €9.5-10m. Which brings us back to his Götze reference. Twice a Bundesliga winner with two years experience of playing in the Champions League not to mention 22 caps for Germany, the Dortmund-cum-Bayern star has achieved so much more than Grenier, establishing himself as an elite player in Europe and is nearly a year and a half his junior.
All of which is not to say that Grenier isn’t a top prospect, rather it’s just to urge caution. For every lasting memory made by Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane there are the fleeting impressions and unfulfilled promises of Philippe Vercruysse and Jean-Marc Ferreri. Time will tell which category Grenier falls into. For now, it’s perhaps best not to get too carried away.