“There is only one thing inescapable in life, that is death.” said Bruno Génésio as his Lyon side dramatically overcame Marseille amid a post-match tunnel brawl, a last minute winner and promises of retribution, “We all have the ability to change things, only those who don’t know football can draw definitive conclusions after each game, one way or the other.” Two months ago as Memphis Depay crashed his shot past Alphonse Areola, the gap at the top of Ligue 1 narrowed to 8 points while the conclusion drawn was that OL were genuine outsiders for the title, either now or in the making, and the Bruno Génésio had finally figured out his team. But as Sunday night’s Olympico at the Velodrome approached, the mood around Lyon had severely darkened.
Across the six Ligue 1 games following the win over PSG, Lyon collected just three points and no wins. While Monaco and Marseille forged clear in the mad dash for Champions’ League places, to the point where Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco entered last weekend nine points clear of Lyon, and OM five. Génésio’s side again capitulated in the Europa League this week, a 3-2 home defeat to CSKA Moscow only surpassed in disappointment by their inept semifinal display in Amsterdam in the same competition last season, whilst rumours of unrest were underlined by full-back Marçal’s exile from the squad after an outburst against Génésio’s management and the fact that Lyon President, Jean-Michel Aulas, had to deny he refused the coach’s resignation. A loss in Marseille to a direct rival would end OL’s top three hopes and likely seal Génésio’s fate.
Without talismanic captain Nabil Fékir, falling behind to OM centre back Rolando’s close range first half opener, it seemed that Génésio might have finally exhausted his many lives having dangerously skirted the precipice several times before miraculously rescuing himself and his team. However, a curious Adil Rami own goal and a sumptuous Houssem Aouar curling effort either side of half-time seemed set to have save Génésio one more. Lyon had found themselves; confident in possession and streetwise in their game management, nullifying Marseille; their direct, pacey forwards enjoying the space afforded them.
An unhinged atmosphere accompanied the game throughout, along with the usual intensity of what is a keenly felt rivalry that has magnified this season as both clubs undergo a similar regeneration process. Previous examples of this include, Marseille hero Mathieu Valbuena’s Vélodrome return as a Lyon player in 2015, which saw him prevented from taken corners due to the debris flung at him from the stands which resulted in a lengthy stoppage in play, as well as OM fans’ creation of an unsavoury effigy of him. The most recent, early symptom of spite last night was Lucas Ocampos and Rafael squaring up to each other. Unacceptable violence aside, the reignited Olympico rivalry is welcome amongst Ligue 1’s newly established big four. PSG’s dominance and Monaco’s weak home support can occasionally detract from other encounters.
Kostas Mitroglou’s looping header with seven minutes to play came as a shock to Lyon, who had looked relatively comfortable. Génésio’s luck was yet to run out however as a pair of tight offside calls fell in OL’s favour, the second with Mitroglou seemingly inside his own half particularly fortunate before Memphis Depay’s own looping header over a stranded Mandanda in injury time proved decisive. Depay who when asked by Canal + this week: “What are you missing to become the best player in the world?”, responded: “In terms of my quality, nothing,” proved again he can be pivotal in key games with his tenth league goal of the campaign.
Tensions descended into outright aggression at full-time as Lyon defender Marcelo gloatingly displayed his shirt to the OM fans as he left the pitch, having clashed with Adil Rami just prior to full time, instigating a brawl in the mouth of the tunnel. Rami’s insistence on again confronting Marcelo between the pitch and the Vélodrome dressing rooms was seemingly a caused by what Thauvin described as “Lyon players goad[ing] us, it was not professional on their part. They lacked respect – it is crazy.” Thauvin then repeated: “They will pay for this. They’ll pay for this. The most important thing is the ranking at the end of the season.”
Marseille are now only two points clear of OL and seven adrift of an in-form Monaco. While Rudi Garcia deserves credit for moulding his unwieldy team into an effective attacking outfit and storming into the Europa League last eight, OM have proven weak in games against their top four peers this season, Thauvin shrinking in particular, taking just two points from six games. What is now a straight fight between the two sides for third, the momentum in this race is arguably shifting, with Marseille having European football to contend with and appearing increasingly tired as a squad. Manager Garcia admitted that Marseille ‘defended badly’ and Steve Mandanda claimed his side ‘blew themselves up’.
At full time, Aulas insisted, “Yes Bruno will be the coach at the end of the season. It would be irrational to be deprived of a coach for the last eight games. I recall that Lyon are 4th, 2 points off 3rd. Bruno does a great job, you saw that his players came to greet him.” Génésio meanwhile explained “Regarding the top three, you never know what can happen in this sport. I don’t usually draw conclusions twelve matches before the end.” While the demise of his reign at Lyon may prove inescapable, Bruno Génésio has once again altered conclusions about his team and his coaching and dramatically, for now, stayed death’s hand once more.
1 | Nice and Paris Saint-Germain played in the day’s first match on Sunday, with Dani Alves snatching a late winner in a game moved up to function as a showpiece for Chinese audiences. The match served as a fine example of Ligue 1’s quality for China and the rest of the world, as Nice delivered a strong performance, giving as good as they got against the leaders. Just two points off Rennes in fifth (with the two meeting in three weeks), European football is still a distinct possibility for Lucien Favre’s side, and despite some occasionally sloppy passages of play, their ambition not only made the match highly entertaining, but showed that despite a disappointing exit from Europe last month, this team has lost none of the spirit it showed last season.
2 | Angers, after a dismal run of form through the autumn that saw them win just once in sixteen matches in the league, continued their improvement of late with a 3-0 win over Caen that saw them move ahead of the Norman side on goal difference. Now on 35 points, Le SCO are all but safe, and much of that has been down to the good form of Karl Toko Ekambi, who scored again at the Stade Raymond Kopa, his fifth in as many matches. Now on sixteen goals for the season, the Paris-born Cameroon international has set a career high this season and looks likely to follow Famara Diedhiou and Jonathan Kodjia in becoming yet another forward to have blossomed under the tutelage of longtime Angers manager Stéphane Moulin.
3 | Dijon’s Wesley Saïd was also among the goals on Saturday, earning a point against Montpellier with a late equaliser. A French youth international at every level, the little forward failed to succeed as a striker in Brittany with Rennes, often featuring but rarely starting, but his move to eastern France has coincided with a marked improvement, recording nine goals in the current campaign. Often playing wide on the right, or as a second striker, Saïd has thrived under the attacking philosophy of Olivier Dall’Oglio, and while his renewed verve has not seen him regain his place in the international reckoning, he has become, at the very least, an above-average Ligue 1 player. Still just 22, there also remains room for improvement, making his coming good a fine advertisement for the value of being willing to move down a level for the promise of regular playing time.