Lyon in need of hollow victory
You might think that an improbable resurrection from two goals down to win in a televised match would elicit some sort of celebration, but there were few smiles on the faces of Lyon's players after Sunday night's comeback win over Lorient. It was just a baby step toward redemption, a road that will continue with the Coupe de France final against third-tier amateurs Quevilly on Saturday night at the Stade de France.
The erstwhile serial French champions probably still had their first-half panning from a sparse crowd on their minds, as they were given the run-around by Christian Gourcuff's struggling Lorient side. It was Lyon's first home game since the abysmal defeat in the Coupe de la Ligue final to struggling rivals Marseille. A fortnight ago, coach Remi Garde had the prospect of a highly creditable first season, with Champions League qualification and two cups ahead of him. Now, the inexperienced boss has been left to pick up the pieces of a shattered campaign.
With the club rebuilding after three years of inexplicable mammon under Claude Puel, the fans can accept a bit of belt-tightening and slightly lowered expectations. What they can't accept is the spineless non-performance served up in a showpiece against Didier Deschamps' limited side. "Twenty-five thousand of us paid to go up to Paris expecting a final," one fan said outside the stadium. "What we got was nothing."
"It was a final that passed us by," lamented the team's de facto leader Lisandro Lopez in the media centre following the win over Lorient. "In my opinion, we played like a very timid team, and we were very poor. This is another competition, another cup, and we know the way in which we have to go into it. In the League Cup, we couldn't get into the game in the way we wanted to. But this is another final. The mental strength is there, and so is the ambition."
While France at large might hope for the Quevilly fairytale to reach an edifying conclusion, the Lyon camp sees only an instant opportunity to bury the frustration of two weeks ago. "We're lucky to have got to two finals," left-back Aly Cissokho said. "It's not often the case that you get to go straight back (to the Stade de France) after losing one. This time, we have to go back with the ambition to do much better. We're playing against a team from the National (third tier) that's playing very well."
Cissokho and his team-mates need no reminding how the minnows from Brittany got to the final. Marseille and Rennes were Quevilly's quarter-final and semi-final victims respectively, feats that inspired such incredulity that some of the latter club's fans almost came to blows with star player Yann M'Vila in the days following the defeat. This ugly spat involving one of Laurent Blanc's star players is a little too close for comfort at Lyon, with Garde having spoken recently of the difficulties in managing a group with "divergent interests".
The coach's choice of words could be used to describe this club and its supporters. While a first trophy since Alain Perrin led Lyon to the league and cup double in 2008 would be welcomed in the city, president Jean-Michel Aulas has made it clear that a top three finish - and Champions League qualification - remains the absolute priority, even if soon-to-be-deposed champions Lille are in pole position above.
This order of importance presents difficulty for Garde. He has to retrench and meet recent history's demand for results. His previous role as head of the academy has given some of the excellent youth products a chance, but what about those that aren't ready? Could Garde be too wedded to his core beliefs? In a taut post-match press conference, he expressed his upset at France Under-20 midfielder Clement Grenier being whistled off after a scratchy performance. "It's just not right," said the coach.
Yet there is little promise of relief. Another defeat at the Stade de France would be met with ridicule, but victory would prompt little more than a nod of acknowledgement before the pressure is back on for the next league game against Valenciennes, battling against relegation.
The feeling behind the scenes is that Garde is doing well, though Aulas' guiding hand is never far behind. "In the dressing room the coach got us back up," Cissokho said of the half-time team-talk against Lorient, "and the president came in to have a word with us." Champions League chat is unavoidable.
"It's still in our heads," said Cissokho, "and it's still there to play for. We just have do everything we can so we have nothing to regret at the end of the season. But now we have to put the league to one side and concentrate on this, because it's been too long since Olympique Lyonnais won a trophy. We really hope to get this one."
The club will again to look to their attacking trojan Lisandro, a player of supreme talent but with absolutely no star pretensions. He answers questions quietly in Spanish but despite speaking little of the local language, he responds for the whole team. Lisandro quickly cut off a journalist who asks if the Lorient win will help to build morale.
"No, no, no," he shook his head. "For me, a victory's not there to give you confidence. These games are finals, they're matches where confidence is key. As professionals, as people who are responsible for our work, our confidence should always be absolutely at 100%. The three points here are only important so we still have hope of finishing in the top three in the league. When it comes to Saturday, we have a chance to win a trophy, so it's obligatory to go into the game confident of winning it."
Sunday was a pretty sombre night at the Gerland, in front of the lowest Ligue 1 crowd at Lyon's home this season, with many punters shunning the prospect of a soaking in the chill in favour of staying at home to watch the general election's first-round results unfold. Such a bleak vista made the glory days of the Noughties seem a very long time ago indeed. The Coupe de France wouldn't solve all the current ills, but it would be a good start.