Multiple former French champions Lyon go into Saturday’s 100th Rhone derby with neighbours Saint Etienne in the unusual position as underdogs.
For years Saint Etienne have lived in their millionaire neighbours’ shadow, but this season the form book has been sensationally turned on its head.
‘Les Verts’ climbed to the summit of the French first division last weekend for the first time in 29 years courtesy of their fourth win of the season, a 3-0 defeat of Montpellier.
In stark contrast Lyon fell to their third defeat of the campaign, a 2-0 loss at Bordeaux, to leave Claude Puel’s expensively-assembled side fourth from bottom of Ligue 1.
With rumours swirling around the Stade Gerland that Puel’s job is on the line the stakes could not be higher as they play host to their upstart visitors.
Among those unsettled by the French giant’s fall from grace is Nestor Combin, a Lyon luminary from the early 1960s.
He told Thursday’s L’Equipe: “Lyon boast some very expensive players, but you could say they have become blase, there doesn’t seem to be any ambition in the squad.”
Combin, who also had spells with Juventus and AC Milan, added: “I played in big clubs where the respect for the team’s shirt was essential. Here (at Lyon), I have doubts and that disheartens me.”
Club president Jean-Michel Aulas piled the pressure on Puel with this far from ringing endorsement: “Like every manager of a struggling big club he is replaceable. He is on probation but not in danger.”
Puel, in an interview on the club’s official website, looked ahead to what could prove to be a determining game in his career.
“What’s different (about this derby) is that we are playing against a team that are leading the league. That hasn’t happened for a long time, so it adds some spice to the occasion.
“We’re playing at home in front of our fans, and we aren’t expecting anything other than playing a good game, and to win it – nothing else.”
Turning to all the rumours surrounding his own job he added: “That’s all part of the life of a manager. I’m aware of all the other things, but my concern remains my players.
“A manager is ‘on probation’ the minute he signs his contract. I know that I’ve got a competitive squad here, and that it’s going to prove itself. It’s for me and my staff to find the key to unlock the machine.”
Lyon go into the weekend’s headline fixture dogged by injuries.
Argentine striker Lisandro Lopez, a club record 28 million euros signing from FC Porto last year, is out for up to three weeks after tearing a thigh muscle against Bordeaux and captain Cris is also unavailable.
St Etienne have not won the derby since April 1994, but they may never have a better opportunity of ending that sequence.
They continued their impressive form on Wednesday with a 2-0 win over Nice in the League Cup round of 32, the ideal confidence booster for a fixture that will test their credentials as true contenders for the 2010-2011 title.
Toulouse, second only on goal difference, host mid-table Lille, while Rennes, one point behind in third, are away to Nice.
Reigning champions Marseille seek only their third win of the campaign against Sochaux.
Fixtures (all 1800GMT unless stated)
Auxerre v Nancy, Lorient v Monaco, Nice v Rennes, Caen v Bordeaux, Montpellier v Arles-Avignon, Marseille v Sochaux, Lyon v Saint Etienne (2000)
Brest v Valenciennes (1600), Toulouse v Lille, Lens v Paris Saint Germain (2000)
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