Can Keeping Kurt Zouma on Loan Boost Saint-Etienne's Champions League Chances?

Nicholas McGeeContributor IFebruary 5, 2014

Monaco's Falcao, right, challenges for the ball with Saint Etienne's Kurt Zouma during their French League One soccer match at the Monaco stadium, Monaco, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

Saint-Etienne were one of the busiest Ligue 1 sides in the January transfer window, with players both exiting and arriving at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard.

Promising left-back Faouzi Ghoulam departed for Napoli, but he was replaced by former Bordeaux defender Benoit Tremoulinas, who arrived on loan from Dynamo Kiev.

The Rhone club also welcomed back midfielder Josuha Guilavogui on loan from Atletico Madrid just four months after his move to the La Liga leaders.

Manager Christophe Galtier will be without centre-back Kurt Zouma next season after he was signed by Premier League outfit Chelsea.

However, the best bit of business Saint-Etienne conducted in the transfer window may have been to keep Zouma until the end of the current campaign on a loan deal from the London club.

The 19-year-old has shown an experience beyond his years in the last two seasons and is an integral part of a defense that has conceded only 22 league goals in the 2013-14 campaign.

Saint-Etienne have kept an impressive 11 clean sheets in Ligue 1 this season, six of those coming during the period between November and January when Zouma was suspended for a dangerous tackle on Sochaux's Thomas Guerbert.

Yet Zouma remains arguably Saint-Etienne's most talented defender, which was evidenced in the France U21 international's first game since agreeing to his move to Stamford Bridge; it was a 3-0 thumping of a resurgent Valenciennes side that had lost just one of their last four league games.

That win moved Saint-Etienne just a point adrift of the final Champions League place, occupied by third-place Lille, and Galtier's side can have genuine hopes of returning to Europe's premier club competition, which they reached the final of in 1976.

Zouma will likely play a key role if Saint-Etienne are to finish in the top three, but it is at the other end where the 10-time French champions will need to improve in order to achieve that feat.

Indeed, attacking midfielder Romain Hamouma is Saint-Etienne's top scorer with seven league goals, while strikers Brandao and Mevlut Erding have combined for just six.

Hamouma is enjoying a magnificent season, but it is unrealistic for Saint-Etienne to rely on him for goals, especially with games against the likes of Marseille, Monaco, PSG and local rivals Lyon still to come.

There can be little doubt that Saint-Etienne possess one of the better squads in Ligue 1, and it is built around their talented and experienced defense and superb goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier.

Guilavogui has boosted a midfield that already includes a number of creative presences in the shape of Benjamin Corgnet, Franck Tabanou and Renaud Cohade, with Hamouma and Yohan Mollo providing the supply for Brandao and Erding further forward.

Still, that squad could soon be dissected if Saint-Etienne do not qualify for the Champions League.

Zouma will likely be playing in the Champions League with Chelsea next season regardless of Saint-Etienne's results in the second half of the campaign.

But with Saint-Etienne's strikers struggling in front of the goal, the teenager's solidifying presence in the back four could well prove to be the difference between Europa League and Champions League football for one of France's biggest clubs.