Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lyon lapse opens door for renaissant OM

It’s been a mad March for league leaders across the continent. Manchester United let Liverpool back into the Premier League title race in 90 crazy minutes at Old Trafford; in Spain, Barça’s once-handsome lead over Real has been slashed to six points; Bayern’s domestic travails mean that the Bundesliga is now a five-horse race; even impregnable Inter have conceded a little ground in the hunt for the scudetto. Next we’ll be hearing news from across the channel that unassailable Lyon are in danger of failing to top Ligue 1 for the first time in eight long years. Well, dear readers, that might just be the case; as Claude Puel’s boys stumbling form has finally brought the wolves to the door.

For the first time in near-on a decade, it’s on. The leaders’ 0-2 loss to Auxerre – brought about by defensive errors from Jean-Alain Boumsong (who’d have guessed?) and the usually dependable ‘keeper, Hugo Lloris – added extra weight to the playing of ‘Le Clasico: Part Deux’ late on Sunday evening. Paris Saint Germain hosted their fierce rivals from the south, Olympique Marseille, knowing that three points would see them usurp Lyon as table-toppers. The visitors from the Mediterranean coast, meanwhile, could draw level with PSG in second place if they could overturn their shock 2-4 defeat in October’s reverse fixture.

As the heavy early fog of the pre-match flares dispersed, Marseille emerged from the smoke the stronger of the two contenders; the Parisians clearly burdened by the weight of expectation which swilled around the packed Parc des Princes. Having been fortunate to survive the drop last term, PSG now faced an altogether different pressure, as the prospect of a first title since 1994 looms large.

The opening goal came as a direct result of an ultra-rare Claude Makelele error. The ex-Chelsea and Real Madrid midfield shield, who might retire at season’s end, uncharacteristically fluffed possession in his own half, allowing January signing Brandão to cleverly backheel a pass into the path of on-charging Bolo Zenden. Some quick footwork and a tidy finish by the veteran Dutchman gave OM a merited lead.

Marseille coach Eric Gerets surprisingly preferred Zenden to Hatem Ben Arfa and Brandao to bustling target-man Mamadou Niang, still recovering from a foot injury, but was quickly vindicated by the pair’s incisive impact. The gruff Belgian also opted to hand Tyrone Mears a rare start at right back, though the Englishman coped admirably with being thrown into the cauldron of France’s national ‘derby’ having spent months on the bench. Having controversially escaped the nightmare which was Derby County under Paul Jewell, a sojourn in the sultry French port must have its attractions, even if playing time has been at a premium. Mears was the last man, but by no means wholly culpable, as evergreen forward Ludo Giuly deftly escaped the offside trap to carefully place an equaliser past Steve Mandanda in the Marseille goal.

It was an undeserved reward for an out-fought and out-thought PSG side as half-time approached. Just when the home team looked as if they might be capable of snatching a win, and with it top spot, their dreams of domestic supremacy imploded before the eyes of the Parisian faithful.

Early in the second period, Zoumana Camara crudely brought down Zenden on the periphery of the penalty area; resulting in a red card for the one-time Inter Milan (and, briefly, Leeds) defender and a free-kick in dangerous territory for Marseille. Zenden’s kick stung the palms of Mickael Landreau, but Bakari Koné fortuitously (for he knew little about it) diverted in the rebound. PSG were now a goal and a man down and, even with more than half-an-hour to go, unlikely to recover.

Paul Le Guen’s re-organisation left three against three at the back; the makeshift backline helmed by 19-year-old prodigy Mamadou Sakho. Recent Marseille signing Sylvain Wiltord watched on from the stands in the company of Patrick Vieira – fresh from his inglorious return to Old Trafford – as his new team-mates effectively concluded matters shortly after. Once an employee of PSG, Marseille’s skipper Lorik Cana took great delight in firing a low, deflected shot past the outstretched arms of Landreau.

That killer third goal quashed any lingering dreams of a home revival, yet there was still time for Giuly, inevitably diminishing in pace but still retaining sharpness of mind (and a great foil for tall striker Guillaume Hoareau) to fire a ferocious volley at goal following an innovative free-kick routine. The diminutive attacker was denied even the consolation of a spectacular second goal though, as Mandanda pulled off a world-class reaction save low to his right. It was a stop, allied to the consistently brilliant accuracy and length of the ‘keeper’s kicking out of hand, that surely impressed the on-looking national coach, Raymond Domenech. Once a trialist at Aston Villa, Kinshasa-born Mandanda has started the World Cup qualifying campaign as first choice no.1 and, on this evidence, will be a worthy successor to Grégory Coupet.

In losing at the Stade Gerland for the first time this season, the aura of impregnability which once surrounded Coupet’s former club, Lyon, has been well and truly punctured. They cannot afford their obvious Champions League hangover to continue any further into the championship run-in. Puel must hope that star man Karim Benzema, too, can shake the torpor which has dogged his previous progress since admitting he wants out of the club, earlier this season.

For once, the big clubs and their impressive management – Messrs Gerets, Le Guen, and Blanc (of Bordeaux) are all capable of ending the monopoly – are sincerely threatening the monotonous supremacy of the little-loved Lyonnais. Even Lille and upstarts Toulouse have a decent shot at glory; each lurking a mere four points behind the leaders. As Bolo Zenden says: “Now, the league is wide open.”