Eric Devin returns after an international break with his round of Ligue 1 Talking Points.
While Paris Saint-Germain’s victory over Marseille in the Classique allowed Lyon to retain a strong position in the race for the top three, if not the title, more important than the result was the resolve that Hubert Fournier’s young side showed. With Milan Bisevac’s season already over, and Yoann Gourcuff again on the treatment table, Les Gones had to have been gutted by the news that both Christophe Jallet and Maxime Gonalons would miss roughly a month.
Both had started every match save one for Lyon thus far this season, their comportment and leadership crucial in their young teammates’ development. Jallet in particular had been a revelation, as the right back position had been somewhat of a weak spot for Lyon in the recent past.
A bargain arrival from PSG, Jallet had done well to play himself back into the reckoning for Didier Deschamps’ Bleus, becoming arguably the league’s best transfer deal. Gonalons had likewise re-entered the international conversation, shaking off a poor 2013-14 to regain the form which had seen him be a key part of Lyon’s Champions’ League success in the earlier part of the decade.
With the two veterans out, and the specter of an embarrassing home defeat to Nice fresh in their minds, Lyon’s youngsters would have had every excuse for a poor performance against Jocelyn Gourvennec’s over-achieving Guingamp. A surprise participant in the knockout stages of the Europa League and once again a Coupe de France semi-finalist, the Breton club have personified veteran guile and determination over the last two years.
Tipped for relegation last year, the club have done well as a collection of experienced players, eschewing Ligue 1’s usual preference for youth to reach a solid mid-table position. With a small budget and a tiny stadium, in many ways Guingamp are the antithesis of Lyon. Despite EAG having lost, 3-1, in the reverse fixture in November, this match seemed to have all the potential for another shock defeat for the visitors.
When Saturday afternoon rolled around, however, it was much as it had been some five months earlier. Continuing with their preferred diamond midfield, with Corentin Tolisso replacing Gonalons at the base and Steed Malbranque taking up the youngster’s usual role on the right, Lyon were their usual efficient selves. Crisp and elegant, there was a bit less attacking thrust without Jallet, but with Guingamp’s 4-4-2 sitting deep and absorbing pressure, the ability to string passes together was the perfect confidence booster for Lyon.
There had been some suggestion before the match that Arnold Mvuemba would replace Gonalons, or that Malbranque would play at the base of the diamond, drawing on his experience there as part of a double pivot during his first season back at the club. However, by playing the former Sunderland man further forward, even in losing some of the energy that Tolisso brings to the role, the Lyon manager was able to inject more hold-up play into the side, with Malbranque able to allow Nabil Fekir or Mouhamadou Dabo to run beyond him, his lack of pace compensated for by his ability to pick a pass.
With Jordan Ferri bossing the midfield on the other flank, allowing Henri Bedimo to stretch play beyond him, it was more than easy for Lyon to quickly develop a rhythm. Of course playing against a Guingamp side surely looking forward to this week’s Coupe de France semifinal was helpful, as was a 4-4-2 that neglected to put any pressure on Lyon until they were well into the attacking half allowed this to happen a little too easily.
Even so, given the potential for disaster that the match posed, the whole has to be viewed as real statement of intent as regards OL’s title hopes. With four of their next five against similarly-placed lower-mid-table sides, the result should give Lyon’s youngsters more than ample motivation to continue their challenge, knowing that fixture congestion and injuries could yet derail PSG.