Lyon: Falling From Grace?

“I am not the coach but it’s true that with all those changes we sometimes find it difficult to get our bearings… It would be a catastrophe of the prospect of Lyon not winning an eighth consecutive title.”

Those words, by Lyon ace Karim Benzema, adequately describe the club’s state of mind. As the recently deposed table toppers travel to Lauren Blanc’s Bordeaux this weekend, a loss for the Les Gones would spell a trophy less season.

What a difference a year makes; in Lyon’s case, add to that managerial changes. Last year, the club won its seventh consecutive title, and did its first ever double by winning the Coupe de France. Despite being heads above shoulders in Ligue 1, the had club failed to win any Cup titles – Coupe De France & Coupe de la Ligue – during its run of league coronations.

After the departure of Gerard Houllier, Alain Perrin was appointed club manager. It was a short lived one as things didn’t go according to plan. The ex-Portsmouth man never took charge of the dressing room, and more frighteningly never received the full support of the club’s hierarchy. His double winning season as Lyon manager did little to save his job and was promptly fired at the end of the season, mainly due to a Dutch-like dressing room unrest.

The locker room malaise resulted in a player vs rest of the squad squabble, player vs coach conflict and a player vs self skulduggery. Hatem Ben Arfa, one of the club’s brightest ever talent, was the thorn in the side, with persistent rumors of a feud with untouchable boy wonder, Benzema. The ongoing petulance between both players irked teammates who castigated Ben Arfa, further ostracizing him.

Manager Alain Perrin’s bullish approach to the situation didn’t bode well for both player and coach which culminated in the turbulent playmaker to boycott training, claiming his egotism – the very thing that makes him special – was being used against him. He was fined, suspended and effectively put on the transfer list for his actions. As the club was concerned, that chapter was over.

And as they say, the rest is history.

Or was it?

At first glance the removal of an agitated unmotivated player will do wonders for squad harmony. Yet, the sloughing of such player or any other player at any cost to caress the club’s jewel is sanity at worst, foolish at best. In an interview given by former goalkeeper Gregory Coupet, the Atletico Madrid man shed light on the power struggle in the Lyon locker room.

According to the Frenchman, “… today’s system gives too much to the very young players, it cedes them everything. If Karim were better supervised, better helped, if he ever had an authority figure around him, he wouldn’t have this attitude. Besides, if I were in charge of his communications, I’d ask him to smile more, because everytime I see him in a photo, he has a nasty look! And I’m sad to see him like that because I know him well and he’s a great guy. But at 20, he’s already a bigshot. And yet today, Karim is more withdrawn into himself, more into the business side. And this is where the sport is beginning to die a little, because that doesn’t bring happiness to people.”

Coupet’s alleged comments – he has since claimed he was misquoted, right!, – caught fans and media off guard. Most were 100% positive Benzema was the innocent party in his altercation with Ben Arfa, but Coupet remarks raised flags about Benzema’s influence at Lyon, and worryingly what role club president Jean-Michel Aulas played in Ben Arfa’s departure.

While it would be pathetic for anyone to slander Alaus; the club plied its trade in Ligue 2 when he took over in 1987 and in a span of 15 years turned it into the envy of French domestic football, he is only human, not perfect, and I reckon it would be shameful journalistic duty to ignore his flagrancies. In all honesty, Aulas indulged and continues to indulge in errors he could easily avoid.

The ever present binoculars worn around the collars by scouts of European giants Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man Utd and co has mounted pressures on the Chairman. Gone are the likes of Essien, Abidal, Diarra and Malouda – all for extravagant sums, – which has put Aulas between a rock and a hard place. Should Lyon be run as a feeder club or should it hold on to its best player at all costs to compete against Europe’s elites?

Veering off topic to briefly assess the wealth disparity amongst Europe’s various leagues, French football as whole is quite well run, second only to the Bundesliga. Still, domestic heavyweights such as Lyon or minnows like Le Havre will find it hard to hold onto players due to the greater financial incentives in Italy, Spain, England and even Germany.

To his credit, Aulas has managed to find a balance during his time at the helm but the previous two seasons has seen the beloved Chairman go off kilter. Lyon, like Bayern Munich, exerts its dominance on fellow domestic counterparts by foraging the league’s best talents. Unlike Bayern, Lyon doesn’t possess the funds to pay over the odds for star players.

Therefore the club cannot, and must not pay, €18 mil for the very over-rated turned absolute dross 26yr old record signing Kader Keita without a view to make profit or break even by selling him to Europe’s top guns. Aulas’ brilliant transfer nuance appears to be waning as he continues to spend aimlessly by crowding the midfield with players of the same abilities (Bodmer, Makoun, Ederson, Anderson, Fabio Santos), replace a young promising striker (Loic Remy) with an old “shit on a stick” (Frederic Piquionne), and fail to sign adequate defensive reinforcements to cover the injury suffered by Cris in the mold of Boumsoung, or the departure of Squillaci with the former Rennes man Mensah.

Like his predecessor, current manager Claude Puel appears to have lost the dressing room. Benzema’s statement is corrugated by comments made 3 months earlier by vice captain Cris and club veteran Govou. The Brazilian center back stated the team had no leader and French international Govou followed suit by stating “You either have the unity or you don’t and we don’t”.

As the club stutters to end of the season, sources close to the club whisper rumors of a possible change in management; ah crap! this is starting to look a lot like Chelsea. When Puel gets the sack, sooner rather than later i envisage, he will be leaving a squad in major need of an Alex Fergurson-like hairdressing. Ego’s need to be put in check, the extra odd squad man needs to be let go and crap players need to be shown the exit, a la Keita et Piquonne.

Lyon are not in a crisis, but the club needs a gust of fresh air if it is to live up to the billing as potential Champions league dark horses, and continue its reign in French football.

However, this season might be a lost cause.

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  1. BD Condell 19 April, 2009
  2. Fierzee 19 April, 2009