x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Saint-Etienne roar again in France's Ligue 1

Lyon head to a derby with Saint-Etienne in a position they normally do not find themselves – sitting lower in the table than their smaller rivals.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has carried his good form in the African Cup of Nations over to Saint-Etienne.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has carried his good form in the African Cup of Nations over to Saint-Etienne.

Most of the Olympique Lyonnais team know the drill.

They have heard the roars and the drumming before, and peered through the vivid green mist that drifts across the pitch from the firecrackers set off by the home supporters just before kick-off.

The ferocity of a Saint Etienne-Lyon derby is familiar enough to all but one or two Lyon players, because theirs is a side with plenty of veterans.

What is new to all of them is the scenario around Saturday night's Rhone derby.

Saint Etienne, the club from the smaller city some 60 kilometres away from the larger metropolis of Lyon, are on course to finish above their local rivals in France's top division for the first time in 19 years. A home win would stretch the gap between Les Verts - The Greens - and Lyon - OL - to six points.

Les Verts sit fourth, one point shy of a third place that, if they have gained it by the end of May, would give them the rare treat of Champions League football in 2012-13. Lyon, who have qualified for the last 13 editions of the Champions League, are seventh.

This derby has known power shifts before. History will for a long time yet be Saint Etienne's ally more than it is OL's. Green was once the brilliant colour of Michel Platini, perhaps France's finest footballer ever, a midfield magician for Saint Etienne in the 1970s. Scroll back to the 1950s and 60s, and Saint Etienne also had, regularly, the finest squad in the land. The club's laurels include 10 championships, the last of them in 1981.

Lyon were scarcely on Saint Etienne's horizon in those days. Their rise, as France's most successful club of the 21st century, has been about modern urban might. Their derby with Saint Etienne remains important because within France's third biggest city there are no direct competitors to OL. As football's popularity has grown in France, so Lyon have amassed, relatively recently, a big support base. They have been shrewdly run, too.

They won the French title for seven successive seasons up until 2008, having never been champions before 2001. A formidable international and local talent-spotting network helped them gain that edge. Even if OL have ceased collecting silverware with such assurance, they still scout resourcefully: It was Lyon who became the first major European club to recruit a UAE footballer, Hamdan Al Kamali having joined on loan in January from Al Wahda.

Al Kamali is yet to make his senior debut. Saturday night, raucous and raw, would not be the occasion for the 22 year old, even if Lyon have had problems lately in central defence, where their captain, the Brazilian, Cris, has come in for criticism. Cris knows he will be under special scrutiny against against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the lively Saint-Etienne striker, who impressed for Gabon at the African Cup of Nations and has brought that form back to France.

"As a player, you know how important these games are to supporters, and I look forward to the extra tension," Cris told reporters. He has seven seasons of Rhone derbies under his belt, since Saint Etienne were promoted from Ligue 2 in 2005. "What we have to do is look at it as an opportunity to stay in the race for the top positions."

The swagger Cris remembers from OL's years of domestic dominance is conspicuous by its absence at the moment. Their ambitious president, Jean Michel Aulas, sent a message Friday to his squad through the French media designed to provoke their competitive instincts.

"We have every reason to be concerned," said Aulas, "because everything seems to going well for Saint Etienne and, frankly, I am not sure if our players have the pride necessary for this sort of contest."

Tough words, but these are tense times for Lyon.