It seems appropriate that in the festive season we should be talking about Rennes, which in addition to being a Ligue 1 football club is also how the French say 'reindeers.'
Hopefully though, for the sake of the children of the world - and their parents - Donner, Blitzen & co. will not be quite as lost as their footballing namesakes are come 'squeaky bum time' on Christmas Eve. Defeat to Caen last weekend was Rennes' sixth straight domestic loss in a spectacularly inept run which has seen them tumble alarmingly down the ladder from third to thirteenth. Having conceded 14 goals in that time, including three each to bit-part actors Valenciennes and Strasbourg, and scored just the once, Rennes risk heading into the upcoming winter break with a nose - and face - as red as Rudolph's. 'It's true that since November, we've been struggling,' ex-Liverpool and current Rennes midfielder Bruno Cheyrou told ESPNsoccernet.com, hitting the nail on the head. 'Several key players have been injured or out of form at the same time, and also there's a certain negative vibe created which is tough to turn around. 'In defence, John Mensah and Stephane M'Bia were both injured at the same time, and they give us a lot of solidity. There was also Olivier Thomert and Sylvain Wiltord up front. All of that, at the same time, is a bit too much for us with the accumulation of matches. If we only had one match a week, it'd be OK, but with three it's a lot more difficult to cope with.' This, however, is not what the pre-season script had in store for the club from Brittany. Had Lille's Nicolas Fauvergue not scored with seconds left of last season's finale to rescue his side a draw against Rennes, it would have been Cheyrou and co. and not Toulouse being soundly beaten by Liverpool in the third qualifying round of this season's Champions League. Given how Toulouse have never fully recovered while Rennes - or Stade Rennais, as their mum would call them - were quicker out of the blocks than a doped-up sprinter, the disappointment of the previous year looked to be the proverbial blessing in a fake moustache and comedy glasses as they looked like living up to their billing as the side to tickle the toes of Lyon at the top. Just two defeats and seven wins from their first twelve games augured well, with summer buys ex-Gunner Wiltord and Ligue 1 'have-boots-will-take-signing-on-fee' Jerome Leroy knitting well with older heads such as Cheyrou and Ghana international Mensah, and the young up-and-at-ems Etienne Didot and Jimmy Briand, who was recently called up to the full French squad. However, injury to the vastly-influential Wiltord - 'In spite of his age and everything he's won, Sylvain still has an enormous desire to win, and he is able to get that across to us,' revealed Cheyrou - in the side's last victory back on October 28 at Lens proved to be start of a series so bad that even Channel Five wouldn't show it and which the return of the ex-France forward has failed to halt.
GettyImagesBruno Cheyrou: We're a small club, with a small team and, above all, small players.
The truth is, however, that while Wiltord played a major role in the team's excellent start to the season, the high profile the enigmatic forward enjoys in his native country not only raised standards, but also expectations and pressures at a club barely used to the spotlight which habitually glares down on Marseille, Lyon and Paris Saint Germain. 'Our good start to the season, along with some good summer buys and the club's desire to move forward over the last few years, that creates greater demands and perhaps people did expect more of us,' said Cheyrou, who has successfully rejuvenated a career stalled by the 'Au revoir' of Gerard Houllier and the 'Hola' of Rafa Benitez at Anfield. 'We started the season well, and now when things are difficult, with the new status of Stade Rennais, people are becoming disillusioned, and I think that's normal.' That disillusionment has even filtered through to the higher ranks of the club with general manager Pierre Dreossi relieved this week of his 'temporary' role as first-team coach after more than a season to be replaced by the moustachioed ex-PSG boss Guy Lacombe, whose first task will be to use his famed 'iron fist in an iron glove' methods to stifle dressing-room dissent. 'There's not the family atmosphere that I was used to at Lens. At Lens we used to joke about all the time,' Daniel Moreira revealed recently to the nation, though he did politely refrain from breaking into the stand-up routine that creased up former team-mate and current Pepe Reina understudy Charles Itandje. 'At Rennes, we don't laugh much, and when we're losing, even less so.' Cheyrou, too, got in on the act, playing Hardy to Moreira's Laurel by uttering, 'We've seen over the last couple of days that we're a small club, with a small team and, above all, small players,' having been part of a Subbuteo-sized XI flicked insolently aside 3-0 by Hamburg in a pathetic UEFA Cup display at the end of November. 'I was disappointed and annoyed and didn't want to spend an age over why we lost tactically. I wanted to keep things simple. It made people sit up, it shocked some people, but I stand by what I said,' explained a clearly unrepentant Cheyrou, whose brusque manner suggests he is unlikely to have a successful post-football career in international diplomacy. 'It's only the second time that we are participating in Europe and perhaps there's a lack of experience in the club. On the pitch, we've tried to do everything we can to succeed, but perhaps that's not been the case throughout the club. It's a shame, because when I saw the group, I thought that we had a chance to go through.' While Lacombe will have to play Freud with some players' heads - not known to be his strong point - he also has the more practical job of a spot of plumbing on what has become one of the leakiest back fours in France.
GettyImagesSylvain Wiltord: Old warhorse has not matched the hype his name carries in France.
New signing Petter Hansson, a Swedish centre-back snatched from Heerenveen last summer, has proved a slower than a Jacques Santini sentence; compatriot Erik Edman - once of Tottenham - has been showing the sort of form that persuaded Spurs to allow him to leave White Hart Lane; while young Guillaume Borne's contribution as Mensah's understudy has been notable only for its unfortunate comedy element, and means a foray into the winter transfer market is a must. But Cheyrou insists all is not lost: 'I think we've got massive potential and can finish very high up the table. We're going through a tough time at the moment, and we have to try and get out of that as soon as possible. That doesn't mean we're going to finish second or third, but I think our team is more than capable of mixing it with the very best.' And while that may sound like bluff and bluster, there is reason to believe. Petr Cech and Andreas Isaksson were household names only within the confines of the Czech Republic and Sweden before Rennes' eagle-eyed scouting system gave them a bigger stage on which to flaunt their talents, while John Utaka and Mario Melchiot - to cite only the most recent - saw the Stade de la Route de Lorient as the place to be before heading to the Premiership. The development of Didot, Briand and Simon Pouplin, a keeper more promising than an electioneering politician, bears testament to a youth academy which may yet bear more fruit; Chelsea's new goalkeeping coach, Christophe Lollichon, was headhunted from Rennes on Cech's express recommendation, which suggests the backroom staff are of some calibre; while at 34th on the Forbes rich list, club owner François Pinault, ranks only 18 places behind Roman Abramovich. 'I think Rennes are like Lyon were a decade ago,' said Cheyrou earnestly. 'We're building something interesting with solid foundations, a good youth academy, excellent facilities and I think we can become a big club like Lyon are now. The only thing we lack is five or six more years.'
GettyImagesSimon Pouplin: Remember the name. He follows Cech and Isaksson on the Rennes keeper production line.