Ligue 1: How Lyon Are Crushing Paris Saint-Germain's Title Hopes
This is supposed to be the year Paris Saint-Germain run away with Ligue 1.
Since buying a majority stake in Les Parisiens in 2011, the Qatar Investment Authority has helped assemble a squad worth approximately €237 million. World Class players like Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore and the mighty Zlatan are being led into battle by two-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti.
PSG have won four games by a margin of 4-0 this season––including the midweek visit to Valenciennes where Ibrahimovic put away a hat-trick–– and should be running away with the French league.
Lyon are riding high following a crucial 1-0 win over fierce rivals St Etienne in the Derby du Rhone over the weekend. Not only did their 10-man victory end St Etienne's 13 game unbeaten streak, but it put Les Gones five points clear of PSG. On Wednesday, OL squandered their five-point lead with a 1-1 draw with Nancy, but they still remain three points ahead of their Parisian rivals.
So, how is Rémi Garde's team managing to stay on top of the pile?
The man at the heart of their success this season is striker Bafétimbi Gomis, whose tally of ten goals in 15 league matches this season is bettered in France only by his PSG equivalent, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Gomis, nicknamed "Baby Drogba" for a playing style that apes the Ivorian, was brought in from rivals St Ettienne for €13 million in 2009 and has been in prolific form ever since: In addition to this season's heroics, Gomis sent Lyon into the Round of 16 in last year's Champions League on goal difference with four Group Stage goals, including the fastest hat-trick in the history of the competition.
Of equal importance to the team are inspirational Argentinean captain Lisandro, former Milan midfield general Yoann Gourcuff and Brazilian midfielder Michel Bastos, who scored the brilliant free kick that won the Derby du Rhone over the weekend.
Lyon's budget may be negligible in comparison to PSG's bottomless pockets, but owner and president Jean-Michel Aulas has helped build a formidable squad that blends experience with an enviable array of youth players. Alexandre Lacazette and Maxime Gonalons are among those to have risen through the ranks to earn first team status.
Former Lyon and Arsenal defender Garde also cites a summer clear-out for this season's success. "The dressing room is better, the spirit the squad has. The dressing room needed an overhaul," he told ESPN FC.
Despite the departure of familiar faces and some fresh legs in the dressing room, Lyon also benefit from the winning mentality instilled by their status as the most successful French side of the 21st century. The seven-consecutive Ligue 1 titles they won between 2001 and 2008 surely inspire confidence in the battle with the likes of PSG and third-placed Marseille.
What's more, Garde's side are almost certainly benefiting from PSG's success in the Champions League. Les Parisiens midfielder Javier Pastore recently admitted that they are finding it difficult to concentrate on domestic affairs with such glamorous European prizes to compete for:
"We are much more focused when we play against big teams in the Champions League than when we play in Ligue 1."
Such an attitude can only work in Lyon's favor. What will also work in their favor is PSG's predilection for making mistakes, such as the slip-up that resulted in their recent 2-1 loss to Nice, or the unconvincing performance at St Etienne that ended their Coupe de la Ligue campaign.
To regain and retain their position at the top of the table until the end of the season, Lyon will need to retain their top talent during the January window. ESPN FC report that Lisandro and Gourcuff may be jettisoned in the new year in a bid to slash the wage bill. Lyon are understood to be €22 million in debt, an issue that President Auris is keen to address.
In what may be a pivotal match in the race for the title, Lyon will travel to the Parc des Princes this Sunday for a top-spot showdown with Paris Saint-Germain. Les Gones were 3-1 victors in their last visit to PSG's home stadium in last year's Coupe de la Ligue, but they have not won in the capital since 2007.
If Lyon surrender their league lead this weekend, this may end up being PSG's year after all. The seven-time champions will not give up without a fight, however, and the return fixture at the Stade de Gerland three games from the end of the season is set to become a thrilling climax to this Ligue 1 campaign.
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