Lyon end thrilling season on top
Tense, dramatic and unpredictable, the last day of the Ligue 1
season served as a microcosm of the entire campaign. It was a
thrilling spectacle only few wanted to end, and when the curtain
finally brought the show to a close, three sides could be thrilled
with their performances, one was left frustrated at fluffing their
lines and another needed to face up to life at a lower level after
taking their place in the cast for granted.
FIFA.com looks back at a season that will live
long in the memory.
Tussle at the top
"It's the best one yet," declared Lyon President Jean-Michel Aulas after his team sealed their seventh consecutive title in their final fixture. The Rhone club's latest honour increases their record tally still further, and it is easy to wonder if their legendary haul will ever be beaten.
Reasoning that it is better to prevent than cure, however, the Stade Gerland outfit have taken to blowing the slightest of setbacks out of proportion. Given the keys to "the best squad the club has had since I arrived," according to Aulas, coach Alain Perrin has had to swallow his tongue on more than one occasion. His authority has been questioned with regards to a dressing room split between senior players, rising stars and new arrivals, his communication style has not always been appreciated by his boss and his tactics have inspired fierce criticism: all in all, it has been a sharp learning curve for the former teacher.
That said, the bottom line ought to be results and all the figures point to success. Karim Benzema took the country by storm with 20 strikes, outstripping everyone else, and Perrin's goal-hungry charges scored 74 times in total - a championship record. Meanwhile, the club successfully defended their title and can even secure the double next week in the final of the French Cup, the only domestic trophy they have missed out on since Aulas took over.
Starring in the 'told you so' category, meanwhile, are two Laurents: Blanc and Roussey. In the final reckoning, Le Président - as the former is known - fell just four points short of Ligue 1 glory with a squad entirely moulded in his own image. United, solid and eager to get forward, Bordeaux emerged as the unrelenting rival of Lyon with attacking trio Fernando Cavenaghi, Wendel and David Bellion scoring 39 goals between them. Previously spurned by various clubs because of his inexperience, Blanc needed just one year in the dugout to announce his presence as a force to be reckoned with.
Roussey also proved a success in his debut season, leading Saint-Etienne to fifth in the standings and ending the club's 29-year wait for a place in Europe. It was the perfect ending for a coach long derided by supporters and buffeted by internal pressures, and whose team fell as low as 15th during the winter as they sought to end the curse preventing them from winning away. Now they can look forward to the UEFA Cup next term, and much of the responsibility for that has to go to striker Bafetimbi Gomis, whose 16-goal return equalled that of Marseille's Djibril Cisse.
Another coach deserving of respect is Guy Lacombe, as he himself has been the first to point out. Recruited by Rennes to stop the club from shipping water and sinking into the lower divisions, the former Paris Saint-Germain tactician needed just six weeks to turn the fortunes of the Brittany outfit around. After a prolonged flirtation with the Ligue 1 trapdoor, Rennes will remain a top-flight side next year.
Pablo Correa and Eric Gerets may not move in the same circles, but at least they can both function without obstacles being placed in their paths within their respective clubs and in the media. The Uruguayan and Belgian coaches have this in common: they know how to get the best out of their players.
Lured to Marseille when the side lay second-bottom after 13 matches, Gerets was able to breathe fresh life into a squad that had lost all confidence, and his side's last-day victory was as revelatory as it was vital. It summed up the club's whole season, in fact, with Mathieu Valbuena, Mamadou Niang, Steve Mandanda and Laurent Bonnart providing most of what was good.
Correa's solid Nancy side were far more stable and occupied one of the top three spots for three-quarters of the season, only to slip up at the final hurdle as injuries to key men Sebastien Puygrenier and Kim hit them hard. It could have all been so different, but along with Rennes, Saint-Etienne and PSG, Nancy will have to make do with UEFA Cup football next year.
Heavyweights in danger
Before a ball was kicked, Monaco, PSG, Toulouse and Lens were all expected to be jousting for European places down the final straight. Instead, events quickly turned sour for the teams blessed with some of the biggest budgets in France - and they struggled from start to finish.
Lens began their bid with Guy Roux in the hot-seat, an audacious move that was supposed to boost attendances, but the veteran trainer soon departed with the team already in trouble. They were clearly more fragile than anyone thought, and there was nothing Jean-Pierre Papin, Daniel Leclercq, the January recruits or the fans were able to do to save them. A storm on Saturday night presaged the heartbreak to come and 40,000 Sang et Or fans showed up at the Stade Felix-Bollaert to watch their heroes drop a division, exactly ten years after they were crowned champions.
Lens's last taste of Ligue 2 came in 1992 and the club appeared to be genuine top-flight fixtures, which leaves their relegation looking all the more momentous. On the other hand, it was far from a total surprise and owes much to poor casting on the part of club President Gervais Martel, who remains tight-lipped about a summer clearout.
Depite boasting the fifth-largest budget in France then, Lens will join Strasbourg and Metz in the second tier next term. The two promoted sides proved to be disappointing additions to the elite, which was especially true of a Strasbourg team many believed would be competitive.
As for PSG, players of the ilk of Pauleta, Jerome Rothen, Mickael Landreau, Mario Yepes, Sylvain Armand, Amara Diane, Peguy Luyindula, Zoumana Camara and Marcelo Gallardo (who left in the winter) should never have been toiling in the lower reaches of the table. That may be true, but they never managed to reach the relative comfort of mid-table obscurity, despite the Paul Le Guen era beginning in such promising circumstances.
Since then, the former Lyon tactician has presided over increasingly difficult times, with the club's League Cup win the only bright spot, unless they can overcome Lyon in the French Cup final. PSG only pulled themselves out of danger on the very last day of action, with their senior players finally living up to their reputations.
For Toulouse, meanwhile, coach Elie Baup was eager to warn everyone that it would be difficult to repeat last year's feats. And so it transpired. After the heady atmosphere of Champions League qualifiers against Liverpool, TFC fell back to earth with a thud. A combination of injuries, unimaginative play and tensions between Baup and club president Olivier Sadran spelt trouble, or "a nightmare" to quote the coach. Even Johan Elmander began to be infected by the general mediocrity and was practically invisible in the second half of the season.
At Monaco, Jerermy Menez and Frederic Piquionne fared a little better. Brazilian tactician Ricardo was expected to turn things around after three tortuous seasons for the principality outfit, but supporters are still waiting for his impact to be felt. Aside from a brief two-month spell, Monaco consistently failed to live up to their standing. Jan Koller quickly found the exit, as did president Michel Pastor, and all in all it was a campaign to forget.
What ought to be remembered, on the other hand, is the fresh attacking verve after an over-reliance on defensive tactics in recent years. In fact, Saturday's last round of matches proved the most prolific in terms of goals since 1974 and in the scoring charts, no fewer than ten players other than Benzema managed to help themselves to 12 strikes or more: including Niang and Cisse at Marseille, who made up the most effective duo in France, the three musketeers at Bordeaux and proven talents Rafik Saifi and Bakary Kone, who finished with 14 apiece.