Lyon find their roar again
When Bafetimbi Gomis scored the only goal of the game against Brest recently, the French international striker raced behind the goal and plucked the head of Lyon's club mascot - predictably, a lion - to add a little local flavour to his habitual prowling panther celebration. "I wanted to do something that would appeal to the fans," said Gomis.
It's true that Lyon fans have had to make do with increasingly small morsels of comfort in recent seasons; their side no longer the king of the Ligue 1 jungle it was when they snaffled seven successive titles between 2002 and 2008, nor that which featured the likes of Michael Essien, Juninho Pernambucano and Florent Malouda, and feasted on some of Europe's most succulent game.
There are encouraging signs though that the down-at-heel music hall sideshow provided by Gomis may no longer be required to put a smile on the faces of those who head to the Stade de Gerland; the main act is now becoming increasingly watchable. Third in Ligue 1 and beaten just once this season, OL have found their roar again.
Like any renaissance, though, it has taken pain to acquire some gain, and in Lyon, pain is spelt P-U-E-L. When Claude Puel took over as coach in 2008, he was given the sort of powers which English managers take for granted, and Ligue 1 bosses can only ask Santa for. After a promising spell at Lille, where he laid the groundwork for much of their recent success, Puel was expected to embellish his own reputation as well as that of OL. Instead, he left the club acrimoniously, going to court to claim unpaid wages and was publicly criticised by OL president Jean-Michel Aulas. The reason? Zero trophies.
When you think that even Alain Perrin managed to do the double in his final season at OL, then you can stand agog at the fact that when Puel left there, the silverware cupboard was bare. Add to that the fact that Lyon had thrown money Puel's way, bringing in the likes of Jean II Makoun, Mathieu Bodmer and Kader Keita - the latter for a side-splitting €17 million - and you could see why Aulas was annoyed. In Puel's defence, he took over a team on the decline, though his authoritarian manner certainly seemed to prickle many in the squad, who - as Aulas admitted - were not happy. "They told me, 'We won't extend our contracts unless you change coach,'" he revealed.
When players start dictating club policy, it is never healthy, yet Aulas yielded and sacked Puel only to then air his views on those same members of the squad who had undermined Remi Garde's first season in charge. Claiming the "unhealthy pressure of the Pharoahs and dinosaurs" in the dressing room, Michel Bastos, Cris, Kim Kallstrom and Aly Cissokho were all publicly outed as members of this soon-to-be-extinct species - of the quartet, only the former remains.
It was a remarkable outburst from Aulas, though nothing he does is gratuitous. Like Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson, this businessman, who has developed OL from second-tier also-rans into the best-run club in France, tailors his public outbursts to suit his and, more significantly, his club's needs. It is no coincidence the four named in his comments were some of the squad's biggest earners and, while their dressing room influence and on-the-pitch performance may not have been optimum, it was their pay packets - a combined €12.6 million in salary alone annually - which most irked Aulas. Hugo Lloris, though irreproachable in goal and in his conduct, was allowed to leave this summer to not only fulfil his own ambition, but also to fill the club's coffers.
With no Champions League football for the first time in 13 seasons, the budget reduced €10 million to €140 million and OL dropping four places to 17th in the rich-list of Europe's clubs, belts had to be tightened. "Our direction is not blurred. I want a dressing room of 23, 24 players, a refreshing dressing room, which we should have had last season," said Aulas last summer. "We'll get there, and we'll have a young squad, ambitious, and of quality," adding that he wanted rid of "two or three penguins who only want to play for their wallet."
It is remarkable then, in this context, that OL are playing some of the best football in the league right now. "The important thing," said star forward Lisandro Lopez in August, "is to have a squad which matches the ambitions of the club." It does, because OL no longer have designs on winning the Champions League or even being Ligue 1 champions given how high Paris Saint-Germain have now upped the stakes. A place on the podium, however, is very much within their reach.
While Aulas rightly pointed out that last season's squad had the potential to win the league and the League Cup in addition to the French Cup which they did pick up, Garde's charges of the current campaign are cut from a coarser but less-worn weave, and one which can clearly still cut a dash in Ligue 1. Maxime Gonalons, who excels in the defensive midfield role vacated by Jeremy Toulalan, has been joined by fresher-faced OL youth academy products Clement Grenier and Alexandre Lacazette in the first team with other youngsters, such as Samuel Umtiti and Yassine Benzia, frequently emerging from the bench. The average age of the squad taken to the Alps for their pre-season training camp this summer was 23.5 years, and that still included "dinosaurs" like 35-year-old Cris.
Youth has not entirely been given free rein either with Lisandro and Gomis featuring regularly along with Steed Malbranque, who - after nearly a year out of the game after quitting Saint-Etienne having played just 27 minutes of Ligue 1 football for them - is producing some of his best football in recent memory. At the back, Serbian international Milan Bisevac, picked up for a song from PSG last summer, has teamed up effectively with young Croatian international centre-back Dejan Lovren, and Remy Vercoutre, long-time back-up to Gregory Coupet and then Lloris, is a solid cut-price replacement in goal. Yoann Gourcuff, the last of OL's marquee signings at €22 million, was even suggesting his price tag was not quite as ridiculous as it looked in summer 2011 before a knee injury sidelined him.
The French international playmaker is expected to return soon, enhancing both the squad and Garde's options. A former Arsenal player who bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Gary Speed, Garde appeared to be a product of OL's new economic reality when he was bumped up from his position as youth academy director. He was, in the sense that other options, such as Andre Villas-Boas, who declined the offer, and Claudio Ranieri, would have been more expensive. But who better than your youth academy director to bring young players into the first team when you can no longer afford to draft in ready-made stars? "We're in total harmony," commented Garde on Aulas' summer outburst.
With the coach and president singing from the same hymn sheet, the squad have led the club on a merry dance: two cup final appearances last season - one successful - supplemented by triumph in the traditional campaign curtain-raiser, the Champions Trophy, against Montpellier in New York and a flying start to the season at home and in Europe. When asked what had impressed him most in the opening months of the season, Garde replied: "The scale of improvement. Without a doubt. With a young, even immature, team, the displays have been interesting."
Though a good clutch of young players promise much, the club's future is uncertain. Last Wednesday, Aulas announced "three players, two in the winter transfer market and one in the summer" will have to be sold to fill a €28m-sized hole in the club's finances. Gomis, who has scored a club-high five times in Ligue 1 this season, was pushed towards the exit this summer with Fulham among the clubs interested in him before he refused to leave.
This time, he, Bastos, Gourcuff, whose €450,000-a-month salary makes him an onerous luxury, and Lisandro, who has recently made public his displeasure at playing left midfield rather than up front, and to whom Fiorentina have taken a shine, will likely be flaunted and then flogged to the highest bidder. The eight years Garde has spent at the club, including a spell in charge of OL's youth academy, will no doubt come in handy when the next batch of fledglings are forced to come out to play with the big boys.