Archive for the ‘Ligue 1’ Category

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“Each year,” Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas once said, “we fix as an aim to have sporting progress, and progress for our financial resources. It’s like a cyclist riding: you can overtake the people in front of you.”

To persist with the software entrepreneur’s analogy after pedalling up from the second division in the late `80s all the way to the top of the Ligue 1 mountain in 2002 and staying there for seven straight years, the peloton has caught up with Lyon and they’re falling down it.

Sunday’s 5-1 defeat to Montpellier – French champions the season before last but booed and whistled by the crowd at la Mosson recently on account of drawing too many games- was the heaviest Lyon have suffered since February 16, 2000. Members of the team and the club’s coaching staff apparently broke down in tears in the dressing room.

With only one win from their last 11 games in all competitions Lyon are in what the front page of Wednesday’s L’Équipe termed “a state of emergency.” Down in 14th in Ligue 1 with just 11 points to their name, only once has the club made as poor a start to a campaign since the LFP introduced three points for a win back in the 1994-95 season.

That was under Claude Puel in 2010. Lyon of course rallied and finished third, but that was in a league without a Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain and a Russian-sponsored Monaco. Repeating the feat looks beyond them. Asked if he felt his job was at risk, Lyon coach Remi Garde replied honestly: “Yes, I feel as if I’m in danger.”

While his decision-making did come under scrutiny against Montpellier – such as the decision to play Gueida Fofana, a midfielder, in the centre of defence ahead of Bakary Kone, a natural centre-back – Aulas’ chief adviser, the former Lyon striker Bernard Lacombe, revealed that before the game Garde had at least told his players to pay particular attention to Hilton and Daniel Congre sending balls over the top. His warning went unheeded.

“After five minutes, they’d already caught us out that way three times,” Lacombe lamented. Victor Hugo Montano’s opening goal came from one. Garde wasn’t to blame. The players were for not following orders and getting distracted. He hasn’t lost them either. The truth is not all “our players were good enough for Ligue 1.” Why is that?

Lyon have been ravaged by injury. Without veteran goalkeeper Remy Vercoutre, centre-backs Milan Bisevac and Samuel Umtiti and full-backs Miguel Lopes and Mahamadou Dabo – so, in short, an entire defence – and playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, the situation is critical. Perhaps understandably given the circumstances, fingers have been pointed at club doctor Emmanuel Orhan and fitness coach Robert Duverne.

The options available to Garde are limited. Promoted from his role as academy director the season before last with a view to bringing its many talented youngsters through to the first team, Lyon have become more and more dependent on it. That has meant kids have been drafted into the first team early, perhaps too early either to cover for the injured or because the club’s austerity policy has meant funds to sign the players needed in areas where the team desperately requires improvement hasn’t been forthcoming.

Some just aren’t yet ready for the step up. Jordan Ferri, the 21-year-old midfielder, started at right-back on Sunday. You felt for him. Montpellier playmaker Remy Cabella gave the academy graduate a torrid afternoon. It was a demoralising experience. His head went down as did those of the other kids around him. “I saw some players give up in the second half,” Garde observed.

Character is absent from their play, as is maturity. Relatives of goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, another player thrust into the first team after Vercoutre’s injury, and those of Fofana argued in the stands over who was to blame for Vitoria Guimaraes’ opening goal in the Europa League a week ago. It ended in a fight.

Spoilt, as so many young footballers are among the elite clubs today and of the opinion that they’ve made it when they haven’t done anything in the game yet, captain Maxime Gonalons – hardly an old head himself at 24 – reprimanded Umtiti after he had a Maserati with the number plate ‘Sam 23’ delivered to Lyon’s Tola-Vologe training ground just days after a 2-1 defeat to Ajaccio in full view of disgruntled supporters too.

Rumblings of discontent extend to the running of Lyon too. Once held up as a model club – Simon Kuper and the economist Stefan Szymanski dedicated an entire chapter to them in their book Soccernomics – Lyon were famed for buying low and selling high. They picked up Eric Abidal, Mahamadou Diarra, Michael Essien and Florent Malouda for €23.7m and later cashed in on them to the kerching sound of €98m entering their bank account.

Aulas was hailed as one of Europe’s savviest operators and toughest negotiators rivaling Porto’s Jorge Pinto da Costa and Tottenham’s Daniel Levy. Around six years ago, his touch started to desert him. Lyon paid €18m for Kader Keita. They then blew €14m on Ederson – the new ‘Juninho’ – and €8.5m on John Mensah. Next came Aly Cissokho for €15m – he got schooled by Pinto da Costa on that one – and then Gourcuff for €22m.

The change in policy was stark. After winning seven consecutive league titles, perhaps Lyon felt they needed to spend bigger in order to make the breakthrough in the Champions League, the winning of which Aulas rather hubristically claimed was a case of when and not if. His indulging of Puel however was disastrous.

Though Lyon reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2010, they won nothing under his charge. There was no return at least in silverware on an investment of €168m in players over his three-year spell at the club. Many of their wages have hung like a millstone around Lyon’s necks.

Shifting them has been like pushing against a series of immovable objects. The players of course don’t want to leave because no one is prepared to match what they currently earn, which in turn has meant Lyon have had to sell the kind of players they don’t want to in order to balance the books. Think goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to Tottenham for a pitiful €12.6m last season and someone like Anthony Martial, the jewel of their academy, one of the brightest talents in France, to Monaco for €5m this summer.

Lisandro Lopez and Michel Bastos’ wages have finally been struck off the payroll – though deals to sell them at better rates could have been done a year ago – and Aulas did at least get good money from Southampton for Dejan Lovren, but players like Gourcuff remain. Due an increase each year under the terms of their agreement he’ll take home €7.6m net in this, the final season of his existing deal, a colossal amount for a club that missed out on the Champions League group stages again after losing their play-off to Real Sociedad.

Unable to get Bafetimbi Gomis to agree to a €10.5m move to Newcastle, Lyon were limited in their recruitment: instead of signing France’s promising right-back Sebastian Corchia from Sochaux they had to settle for Miguel Lopes on loan. Gaël Danic was brought in from Valenciennes for €800k and Clement Grenier, the team’s big hope, was given a new contract, the sensation being that he is the future of the team, not Gourcuff who will be released next summer.

These errors of judgement, Lyon’s subsequent decline as a force on the pitch and the global financial crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time as they press on with their efforts to build a new ground, the privately owned 58,000 seater Stade de la Lumieres. Aulas and another shareholder Jerome Seydoux have put in €135m of their own money into the €405m project.

That has proven quite the burden, one that’s been exacerbated by the excesses of the Puel era, and made painful cuts necessary. Garde’s net spend is +€49m [that’s €17m in expenditure and €66m in sales] compared with -€70m under Puel. An income generator like the Stade de la Lumieres is essential if Lyon are to be competitive. Due to open at the end of 2015, its inauguration can’t come soon enough.

Until then, however, like the cyclist he referred to some time ago, Lyon’s legs will be heavy, catching their breath difficult, the oxygen thin. This season promises to be an uphill struggle for Les Gones.

psg-footballBy Alex Netherton

It’s nice to know that it’s not just the Premier League whose ceremonial opening game is taken as seriously as it deserves. On Saturday night, Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux played in their version of the Charity Shield, the Trophee de Champions. As you’d expect from what is fundamentally a friendly, the line-ups we patchy and the commitment to performance was even less than that.

With Edinson Cavani and Marquinhos not starting, and with the use of such stellar substitutes as Hervin Ongenda, a five-feet, eight-inches tall eighteen-year-old, it was clear that this was a match being used as practice, and little else. Bordeaux, equally, are adjusting after changes made to their squad, losing Anthony Modeste and Benoit Tremoulinas for 11 million euros, and reinforcing with a 33-year-old Jeremie Brechet and little-known Lucas Orban. Despite taking the lead, the match in Gabon ended with a 96th minute PSG winner for Alex, who one would assume will be sat on his buttocks sooner rather than later now that Marquinhos has been bought.

So, while the match was a friendly, it continued the kind of story we’re used to from PSG. Not hugely impressive given the massive amount of petrodollars they’ve been heaving around with gay [Paris] abandon, but still with such an advantage in resources and talent that victory was almost certainly inevitable. PSG have added again this summer, and were it not for Monaco one would assume that Ligue Un was theirs for as long as they wanted it, and that the focus could be shifted to the Champions League.

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Alex Netherton

At least Laurent Blanc won’t have to worry about quotas anymore. Having spent a wee time on the sidelines, Larry White has his new gig at Paris Saint-Germain. Some people get revived by smelling salts, but Blanc has had his career revived by oil fumes. That means, of course, that while there can be loads of excitement about France this season, we can evaluate the work that Carlo Ancelotti has done in his season and a half in France. There won’t be time to include the work we can assume he has done in the city’s restaurants, even if food is obviously more interesting than football. Food!

One would have reasonably assumed that when Ancelotti took over, as 2011 was on the verge of becoming 2012 and PSG were three points clear of Montpellier, that a manager of his experience and a team with such financial advantage would have easily won the league for the first time in over 500 years. It wasn’t to be. Despite that in the summer of 2011, PSG had bought Salvatore Sirigu, Jeremy Menez, Blaise Matuidi, Kevin Gameiro and Javier Pastore, they could only finish second. Montpellier played such thrilling and consistent football, lead by Younes Belhanda and Olivier Giroud’s partnership in attack, that their victory was well deserved. They truly played like a team, while PSG played like they were on their first date. There had been moments of excellence, particularly if intermittently from Pastore, but the sense was that Montpellier’s form for that season carried them to the title, partly because PSG were incapable of pulling their fingers out.

And they didn’t pull their fingers out (this is a metaphor, not a genuinely revolting scoop being put out there) in Ancelotti’s first transfer window. They bought Maxwell from Barcelona and Alex from Chelsea. This was not so much a statement of intent as it was a statement of just looking forward to the end of the season. Work was being done to lay the foundations for success and to sensibly attempt walking before they would consider running. There were plenty of boos from the club, as there were at the start of the 2012/13 season, but that said more about the type of fans PSG have. Paris’s fans were already known for their arrogance, and the city is widely loathed for the same. The takeover attracted the fairweather, flashy fan – the type Chelsea have started to attract – with a sense of entitlement expressed first and foremost in willingness to express dissatisfaction. If there was one thing Ancelotti failed to improve, it was the new fans’ attitudes. What he did do, though, was to weather the fans’ displeasure and commit himself to steady progress that would leave PSG able to focus almost exclusively on the future, rather than mistakes of the past.

Ancelotti did not transform the team in this season, nor did he appear to try to. The owners and Leonardo had said Champions League football was the aim for that season, and so it proved. PSG finished second, and Ancelotti had begun to build his team. He had identified those players capable of performing in the Champions League, he identified the players who would improve the squad, and more importantly, began the process of removing the players who were no longer needed. Improvement was gradual but can be seen more clearly in retrospect than simply in each transfer window.

Without Carlo Ancelotti at Paris Saint-Germain, it would have taken more effort, and more z-e-r-ohs on the cheques to attract the players necessary to really compete in Europe. Obviously that is not to say PSG were ready for the Champions League last year, but they were a team who looked far more at home in that competition than they did in Ligue Un. That summer, the side added Zlatan Ibrahimovic, bringing an ego and swagger that would normally take years to develop. Ibrahimovic is an utterly staggering arsehole of truly ridiculous proportions, but a man with the standing of Carlo Ancelotti is one of the few capable of keeping him – more or less – onside for a season. Ibrahimovic delivered crucial goals, and his self-regard in turn demanded that his teammates raised their game to meet his expectations. Without Ibrahimovic, the title wouldn’t have been Paris’, and his arrogance was one of the building blocks for the team to get used to being in Europe. Ibrahimovic would have had no concerns about whether or not he really deserved to be there, and his side increasingly started to believe that was the case. When Barcelona eventually defeated them in the quarters, it was PSG who surprised everyone with their competence, not the other side.

As for the others, Ezequiel Lavezzi may not have had an incredible season, but he scored the decisive goal in the last leg against Valencia, and has undeniable class. Thiago Silva had problems with injuries, but displayed often enough that he is potentially the greatest centre back of his era, with a calmness and adroit sense of positioning not seen since Rio Ferdinand at his peak. Marco Verratti, the next Pirlo, was bought from Pescara and could well—no understatement—be the best midfielder of his generation and define PSG if he and his side are successful. Ancelotti needs praise for working with Leonardo to not waste the opportunity of the transfer window – there were no obviously idiotic signings, and all the players added were part of a plan to solve deficiencies, whether or not they were overwhelming successful in doing so. Ibrahimovic added stardust and genuine class, Thiago Silva would improve the defence immeasurably, Verratti was a player to build a side around.
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Grenier (right).

Grenier (right).

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.

Wrongo Bongo!

Wrongo Bongo!

Just what in the hell is going on in European football at the moment? WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN EUROPEAN FOOTBALL AT THE MOMENT?

Paris Saint-Germain have rejected an approach from Real Madrid for their coach Carlo Ancelotti, the club president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, said on Monday.

“They [Madrid] came and I discussed it with them,” Khelaifi said. “He’s got a contract with us for one more year … for me, he’s here next year. He’s a fantastic guy and I’m sure he’ll respect his contract.”

You know QSI and I used to be tight when we were all interested in exposing a certain Times-duping conman, who we will call Bob Real. Since then my polite inquiries on the Wayne Rooney saga have gone unanswered.

So I’m hurt a little here, guys. In any case, this is whack from Real Madrid. I suppose if it’s the bauble in Europe they’re obsessed with than Ancelotti makes it worth a punt, and no one should think this thing is anything more than a punt. But it does show Real Madrid is already flailing around for their Mourinho replacement. And…well. If you think Ancelotti—the guy who lost Ligue 1 to Montpellier last season—is going to knock Barcelona off their effing perch, I’ve got an HTC First to sell you (that’s tech humour of the kind you use when you get company-wide emails with news in the tech world. Tech is short for technology by the way).

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The legend of Zlatan grows as French spending kings PSG captured the Ligue 1 title for the first time in 19 years. Jérémy Menez’s goal in the 53rd minute was enough against Lyon at Stade de Gerland. The title marks the 12th title in 13 years for Swedish superman Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Trophies for six clubs in four different countries–Ibra the best. The result also means we’ll be seeing Joey Barton and the folks from Marseille in the Champions League group stage. That will be fun.

Not only does money buy happiness, it wins titles as well.

Update: So about that happiness part. Ibra got into an argument with club director Leonardo in the dressing room.

According to Tancredi Palmeri Leonardo asked Ibra to undergo a drug test. The man wanted to party. Tancredi has more on the bizarre incident on his twitter feed.

When the issue of violence against referees is in the headlines, particularly in the US where a referee was killed after being punched by a player, Leonardo is at the centre of controversy as the PDG director was caught on film body-checking the referee after his team failed to secure the Ligue 1 title in a 1-1 draw with Valenciennes. Yahoo! Sports reports:

[PSG's] Thiago Silva was sent off two minutes before the break against Daniel Sanchez’s side, and video footage showed the former AC Milan boss shoving Alexandre Castro in the tunnel. Should Castro decide to report the incident, the French authorities could slap the capital club with a hefty punishment and the Brazilian with a suspension.

Philippe Auclair claimed on Twitter Leonardo could be banned up to a year, and PSG could face a points deduction. Not something that the club needs on the verge of a likely title win.

(HT Philippe Auclair).