Could Bordeaux be the first French club in six years to come between Lyon and the Ligue 1 trophy? Unthinkable until quite recently, this is a very real possibility now that the Girondins lie just four points behind the pacesetters from Stade Gerland.
Strangely enough, Bordeaux's surge back into contention has coincided with a dip in form for the club's top scorer, David Bellion. Marouane Chamakh has been absent on CAF Africa Cup of Nations duty too, but fortunately coach Laurent Blanc had another ace in his pack in the shape of a certain Fernando Cavenaghi. One of football's forgotten men until his stunning reversal of fortunes this month, the Argentinian Cavenaghi had spent far too long in the wilderness.
It was all so different a few years ago. Nicknamed El Torito (the little bull), Cavenaghi exploded on to the scene at the turn of the millennium, starring alongside hugely-talented players such as Ariel Ortega, Esteban Cambiasso and Andres D'Alessandro in the River Plate line-up. With a record of 55 goals in 88 Millonarios appearances between 2001 and 2004, in addition to his three Apertura wins (2002, 2003 and 2004) and starring role at the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup, there never seemed to be any doubt that he would go on to enjoy an excellent career.
As far as Argentinian fans were concerned, he was the successor to Mario Kempes and Gabriel Batistuta, and Europe's biggest clubs did not lag far behind in taking interest. Cavenaghi's Italian passport made him almost as attractive as his extraordinary technique and predatory instincts, so eyebrows were certainly raised when he joined Spartak Moscow during the 2004/05 campaign. The forward then went on to spend two-and-a-half largely anonymous years in Russia.
Placed alongside his River Plate feats, Cavenaghi's Russian return of 12 strikes from 51 matches seems underwhelming, but the 2003 South American U-20 Championship winner and top-scorer insists he does not regret his choice. "In spite of everything, that experience remains positive," he said. "It proved useful to me in my life as a man and also in my career as a professional footballer.
"That page has been turned now. It was very important for me to come to western Europe. I came to Bordeaux to give my career a boost. My job is to score lots of goals and do everything I can for the club. I want to show that the Girondins did not make a mistake."
Cavegol touched down in wine country in January 2007, bringing with him a reputation as a formidable marksman but not the match fitness to go with it. The Russian championship had finished two months earlier, and despite the newcomer's hard work and enthusiasm in training - where his superb touch soon drew gazes - he struggled to break into a side already rich in attacking options. Indeed, he contested just nine games and managed only two goals before the season was out, although at least his CV now boasted a French League Cup win.
The 2007/08 campaign kicked off in much the same way, due both
to a groin problem during the summer and the constantly fierce
competition for places up front. However, instead of voicing his
frustration, Cavenaghi kept his counsel and stepped up his efforts
on the training ground. When opportunities did come his way, he
seized them with both hands, producing four goals in five UEFA Cup
appearances plus an effort in the French Cup.
That combination of dedication and results could not go unnoticed forever and on 12 January Laurent Blanc finally accorded him his chance with a starting berth at home to Auxerre. Until then, Cavenaghi had played just 196 minutes in Ligue 1 all season.
Bull on the loose
By the end of the game, Cavenaghi had seduced the 30,000-strong Stade Chaban Delmas faithful with two goals and a performance bristling with vision and technique as the team's target man: all of which reminded the locals of Portuguese goal-machine Pauleta, who plundered 65 strikes for the club between 2000 and 2003.
The bull had been let loose and the following week he found the back of the net yet again, scoring against Le Mans with an exquisite lob at full stretch. Then, three days later, Saint-Etienne became the Argentinian's latest victims as he served up a lesson in selfless forward play interrupted only by an equally valuable lesson in effective finishing: he fired in the winning goal after battling away like a 'little bull' in a forest of opposition defenders.
As a result, his qualities have been appreciated as much by his team-mates as by supporters. "He's a super player," said David Bellion. "His touch is exceptional and although he hasn't played much in Ligue 1, every time he does play he produces some very classy moments."
The views of coach Blanc in the dugout are similarly positive. "He's the kind of player we didn't have in the team; a very good player in the opposition area," explained Le Président. "What I like about this lad is that he knows how to bring the rest of the team into the game. And what's so useful about that is that he's surrounded by players with a good enough technique to make the most of it."
Blanc's men have certainly made the most of Cavenaghi's renaissance so far. His goals and all-round play have raised the very real prospect that Lyon could surrender their trophy in the coming months. Whether Bordeaux go on to steal their crown or not, their Argentinian talisman already has much to celebrate. Cavenaghi has put his career back on track and can now hope to finally raise himself to the levels attained by the more successful prodigies of his generation.