There was some trepidation at the Parc OL on Sunday afternoon, even with the hosts having the considerable advantage of playing earlier in the day than either of their two rivals for the top three, Monaco and Marseille. The source of this apprehension was a raft of rumours that had emerged linking Lyon’s captain, Nabil Fékir, with a €70m move to Liverpool in the summer.
Fékir has also been linked with Barcelona at points this season, but these rumours seem to have serious weight to them, with precise details offered by one of France’s most reliable outlets, RMC, and the player himself offering only a stock response when asked about them of waiting to see until the close of the season, with two matches yet to play. Fékir was, in any event, slightly off the boil on the afternoon, with Lyon needing Bertrand Traoré to deliver an unlikely Man of the Match performance to record their eighth consecutive victory.
However, if Fékir seemed momentarily distracted, his performance was at least functional, unlike a handful of other players who have been unsettled for most, if not all of the current campaign. Last season, Fabinho, Jean Michaël Seri and Thomas Lemar were in most experts’ Ligue 1 Team of the Season. The three have all also, like Fékir at present, been seemingly on the verge of moving on to pastures greener, only to have nothing come of those moves, and they have more often than not turned in dour performances, with those of Lemar in particular bordering on the perfunctory.
With their match kicking off half an hour after the match in Lyon, Lemar’s Monaco badly needed a result against struggling Caen to keep pace with Les Gones. Returning to the club of his youth, however, Lemar played a mare, disappointing in a match that saw his side missing Jemerson and Fabinho through suspension and a number of other regulars injured, among them leading scorer Radamel Falcao and Keita Baldé. Monaco did earn a win, with young striker Moussa Sylla netting a brace, but Lemar was poor in extremis, with L’Équipe rating his performance a 3 and describing it as “missing all that is necessary to exist, he retreats into apathy.”
If one can resist the urge to make a witticism about French existentialism here, this performance can be seen as not only a microcosm of Lemar’s season as a whole, but also the dangers associated with not only a player having their head turned but of not knowing when to let players go. In the weekend’s final match, Nice’s visit to Marseille, Seri, playing against a bitter derby rival with both sides needing a win to keep pace with their rivals for the Champions’ League (Marseille) and the Europa League (Nice), was similarly poor. Like Lemar, who has dealt with a nagging shoulder injury, the Ivorian has struggled with his fitness this season, with a hamstring issue causing him to miss a month of action in November.
However, he, too, after not getting a move to Barcelona, has seemed indifferent more often than not. Some of this may be down to more of the attacking load being given to summer arrival Pierre Lees-Melou, as well as extended absence on the part of fellow midfield lynchpin Wylan Cyprien, but on the whole he has been well below the dynamic presence that graced Les Aiglons last season.
Fabinho, too, has looked off the boil after his mooted move to Paris Saint-Germain failed to materialise, though not to the same levels of Seri and Lemar. A move to Atletico Madrid is now being tipped, but one has to wonder if Monaco and Nice could have performed at a higher level this season without these talented, albeit distracted stars, with Lyon setting the example in that regard.
While Fékir did look less than his best against Troyes yesterday, he has performed at an exceptional level throughout the season and would likely be in the running for player of the season had he not missed some six weeks with injury. Much of this, of course, is down to his having become the focal point of his side’s attack, with Alexandre Lacazette and Mathieu Valbuena having been sold in the summer.
Along with Corentin Tolisso, it was clear that Lyon was no longer the ideal place for any of that trio; Tolisso and Lacazette had earned the chance to prove themselves on a higher level, while Valbuena, at 33, was in search of a final payday. Aulas had no compunction over letting those players go, and even if there has been the odd bump in the road this season, including a frustrating Europa League exit, Lyon’s present place in the table, as well as the resurgence of Fékir, shows the wisdom of letting players who could become potential distractions move on.
Nice and Monaco did both allow more than a few players to depart this summer (Kylian Mbappé, Dalbert Henrique, Younes Belhanda, Benjamin Mendy, Tiemoué Bakayoko, Bernardo Silva), and one can understand the risks involved in such wholesale departures, but using the current table as a yardstick, it has become increasingly difficult to give any credence to the philosophy of not allowing players who have served the club well to seek a new challenge.
1 | Nantes’ season finally is over. The 2-0 loss to rivals Montpellier ended faint hopes of a European place and leaves Les Canaris struggling to finish in the top half. More importantly, Claudio Ranieri’s future has become increasingly uncertain as his relationship with cantankerous president Waldemar Kita has begun to disintegrate, with the Italian astonishingly implying Kita should sack him if he did not like the way the team were playing last week. Should Ranieri leave, the club would struggle to repeat their challenge next year given the Italian has squeezed a generally positive season from a workmanlike squad. With a new stadium planned, a continued Ligue 1 presence is a must.
2 | With the majority of matches moving to Sunday to respect the anniversary of the 1992 Furiani stadium disaster, an unusually congested schedule lent itself to drama at the bottom. Metz were finally relegated, and in cruel fashion. With ten minutes to play their 1-0 lead over Angers combined with Lille’s 2-1 deficit at Toulouse had Les Grenats just three points from the relegation play-off spot but a brace of remarkable comebacks, both Angers and Lille scoring twice at the death, conspired to see them down. Toulouse’s loss drops them below Lille, who have now won twice in a row, into the playoff berth while a last minute defeat to Monaco keeps Caen in danger alongside Troyes (19th) and Strasbourg (17th).
3 | “It’s been two amazing years, thanks to everyone.” While Mario Balotelli didn’t rule out staying with Nice, his Instagram post carried a strong sense of finality. A superb sixth strike against a top four opponent this term was part of a committed display in Nice’s 2-1 loss at Marseille, underlining the impact Nice and the Italian have had on each other. Although Balotelli has occasionally reverted to type, 16 league goals this season and always relishing a showpiece encounter with the big four has added substance to the nation where Balotelli has finally found a home and a coach, in Lucien Favre, with which he has built a genuine connection. Ligue 1 will sorely miss Mario.
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