As part of its continuing series on the world's derbies, FIFA.com casts the spotlight on central France, where the rivalry between Lyon and Saint-Etienne boasts all the essential ingredients that make local duels such a special part of the game. Aside from a fierce battle for local supremacy, one that has seen a considerable shift in the balance of power in recent years, the Rhone derby also encapsulates the many differences that exist between the predominantly middle-class city of Lyon and its more industrial neighbour.
Although Lyon and Saint-Etienne are separated by a distance of only 50 kilometres, the two cities, both of which possess very strong identities, are worlds apart. The social contrasts between white-collar Lyon and blue-collar Saint-Etienne are obvious and are inextricably linked with the differences that separate the local rivals on an historical, cultural and sporting level. The sustained success of the Verts on the national and European stage in the 1970s, for example, brought relief to recession-hit Saint-Etienne and gave the townsfolk bragging rights over their affluent neighbours, who had long since been starved of footballing success.
The first meeting between the two sides came in 1951, and although Lyon got the better of their opponents on that occasion, it was not long before the men in green started to hold sway. And by the late 60s and early 70s, St Etienne had established themselves as the top dogs not just locally but nationally as well, completely overshadowing the efforts of the Gones to break into the French elite.
But after a tenth championship triumph in 1981, the green of St Etienne began to fade. Up the road, meanwhile, their rivals were beginning to waken from their slumber, roused by the arrival of Jean-Michel Aulas as president, the man who would slowly but surely build the club that has dominated French football for nearly a decade now.
Facts and figures
The Verts still have the edge in the head-to-head record, claiming 38 wins and 29 draws in 96 league and cup meetings, with Lyon coming out on top 29 times. The recent pre-eminence of l'OL in Ligue 1 has also been reflected at a local level, however, and since losing 3-0 at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on 6 April 1994, Lyon have gone unbeaten in 18 derby clashes.
The fixture's top scorer is Saint-Etienne's Herve Revelli with 11 goals, while the Lyon duo of Serge Chiesa and Yves Chauveau have amassed the most Derby du Rhone appearances, with 28 and 23 respectively. The highest-scoring clash was a 5-4 away win for Saint-Etienne on 22 September 1963, while the only players to score hat-tricks in the fixture all did so for Lyon: Fritz Woehl in 1951, Angel Rambert in 1963 and Fleury Di Nallo in 1971.
Tales of derbies past
Like any rivalry, the Rhone derby has its fair share of legends, heroes and anecdotes. Take Saint-Etienne coach Jean Snella, for example, who saw his side go down to the Lyonnais in a 1967 French Cup tie, and famously declared, "They scored and then dangled the carrot at us."
Snella's direct criticism of his rivals' defensive tactics brought a witty response from the Lyon fans, who tossed carrots on to the pitch when the sides next met in the league. When one of the offending vegetables hit Verts striker Georges Bereta on the head, he promptly picked it up and ate it, the prelude to a 2-1 Saint-Etienne win.
Former Lyon goalscorer Bernard Lacombe, who is now a consultant at the Stade Gerland, came up with an equally amusing response to Saint-Etienne's recent return to the top flight. "It's good to have the Verts back this season," he said. "That's a guaranteed six points and a full house for us."
Latterly Karim Benzema, a worthy successor to Lacombe in the Lyon front line, has also made his indelible mark on the derby. The 21-year-old France international has scored three times against the Stéphanois, including the winner at the Geoffroy-Guichard in August and a superb last-minute free-kick to deny the Verts a long-awaited win last season.
The rivalry today
Saint-Etienne have acquired legendary status thanks to their glory years, but the fact is that the majority of the club's fans were born after their golden era had come to an end. The Geoffroy-Guichard faithful are anxious for the good times to return, especially with Lyon having ruled the roost for so long now. But even though the Gones have collected trophy after trophy over the last ten years, they have failed to attract the nationwide admiration that their rivals in green did during their heyday.
The latest instalment in the long-running battle for supremacy on the Rhone comes on Sunday evening and both sides have very different requirements going into the game. Quite apart from seeking to extend their unbeaten run in the fixture, Lyon will also be looking for a win to maintain their unusually narrow advantage at the top of the table.
Marooned at the other end of the standings, meanwhile, Saint-Etienne need points quickly if they are to pull away from the relegation zone. And just to add a little more flavour to the occasion, Saint-Etienne's coach is none other than Alain Perrin, the man who guided their deadly adversaries to the league and cup double last season.