After the 2008/09 season came to an end with the big guns of Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon occupying the top three spots, the start to the new Ligue 1 campaign has brought an unexpected side to the fore. The team at the top of the standings is none other than Nancy, 15th last term after managing just two wins in their first 12 matches but already boasting six points from two games and having fired seven goals to just one conceded. For the club's first-choice right-back, Michael Chretien, it has been the most satisfying of starts.
"It's good for our morale and confidence," the Nancy native told FIFA.com, his entire career having been spent at the Stade Marcel Picot. "We all remember last season and in particular our poor start. It's something we promised ourselves we'd avoid this time."
Back in May, many were calling for Nancy's Uruguayan coach Pablo Correa to pay the price for their disastrous season, but the side that first gave the world Michel Platini does not operate like that. Friends for a number of years now, club President Jacques Rousselot and his man in the dugout could not part ways so hastily, and since then they have worked together to reinvigorate a squad that rose from toiling in Ligue 2 (2000 to 2005) to rubbing shoulders with the rest of Europe in the UEFA Cup (2006/07 and 2008/09).
"In contrast with previous years, the pre-season work was more centred on our play than our physical condition," explained Chretien. "It was good to break our habits, especially after such a terrible season."
He may be only 25 but there is already something of the wily veteran about Chretien, and that could have much to do with his experiences on the international stage since February 2007. The dynamic defender has become a key figure for his national team, but instead of opting for France he has been defending the colours of Morocco for the last two-and-a-half years, representing the Atlas Lions under his father's surname, Basser. Chretien's parents never married and he has always lived with his mother.
"A few years ago, a player with dual nationality had to make his choice the moment he turned 21," he said. "When I reached that age, Morocco showed more interest in me than France, even though I was playing for the France U-21s at the time. It was an easy choice, especially as I feel close to my Moroccan roots. People keep telling me I should have tried my luck with Les Bleus, and that I could have won my place with them, but I don't have the slightest regret. Morocco is a country I wanted to join up with for the long term. It's always a great pride to represent your country. Unfortunately, the results have not been so good."
Indeed, despite lifting the CAF African Cup of Nations in 1976 and reaching the FIFA World Cup™ finals in 1970, 1986, 1994 and 1998, Morocco have often struggled to match the hopes of a nation passionate about the sport. Since finishing runners-up to Tunisia in the 2004 African Cup of Nations, the Atlas Lions have made precious few waves on the international scene and they face a struggle to change that in the final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. So far, they have recorded a 2-1 home loss to Gabon and goalless draws away to Cameroon and at home against Togo.
"At the moment, every time I leave the pitch with the national team, I wonder why things haven't worked," said Chretien. "We look for answers and we have discussions but we never find what's going wrong. We've got an exceptional generation of players and ought to have big ambitions, but it's no use: we always finish our matches with regrets. It's becoming frustrating."
The poor run of results has not been without consequence either, French coach Roger Lemerre having been sacked in July, barely 12 months after taking the helm with six successful years in charge of neighbours Tunisia under his belt. "He came along with his own methods and while I admit that I liked that, there were some who no doubt found it hard changing their habits," explained Chretien. "It's true that he perhaps tried to revolutionise everything a bit fast. Either way, and I find this much easier to say now he is no longer in charge, I'll remember him as a great coach."
Hassan Moumen is the new man at the controls and he knows Morocco can no longer afford any slip-ups. Their minimum target is to book a place at the 2010 African Cup of Nations, however Chretien still holds out hope for a much greater reward.
"I'm not the type to just give in," he said. "The harder it gets, the more I want to go for it. When I look at some of our matches, I tell myself we can do great things. In the end, our last three qualification games came down to small details. I'm convinced that with a little self-sacrifice, we can make something happen. I dream of playing at a World Cup, and why not in 2010?"
Second from bottom in Group A and four points shy of leaders Gabon, who boast a game in hand away against Cameroon, Morocco must surely plot a perfect course to have any hope of going through. The turnaround in fortunes would have to be dramatic, starting against Togo in Lome on 6 September.
"Despite this excellent start to the season with Nancy, I confess that it's hard not to think about the match against Togo," said Chretien. "We absolutely have to win; any other result would mean we'll be watching the World Cup on television. It's going to be a very difficult game, but not impossible. As you can see, I never give up."