Bar John Textor, who continues to live in denial, everyone around Olympique Lyonnais is aware of the danger that the club are in, of the reality of relegation to Ligue 2.
“This team is not at risk of relegation. Teams that get relegated in any country, in any league do not play like we played tonight. You don’t see that kind of quality in teams that go down. We don’t look down the table, we look up the table. We risk having a very mediocre season. That bothers the hell out of us. But whoever is talking about relegation is just stoking fear and creating stories. It’s good fodder for conversation, but it’s a bit of a joke. I don’t take it seriously […] it’s nonsense,” said Textor after Lyon’s defeat against Clermont Foot (1-2) in late October.
The American owner’s defiant tone seemed at complete odds with reality. Lyon have quality in their squad, few would deny that. Players like Rayan Cherki, Maxence Caqueret, and the increasingly peripheral figure of Mohamed El Arouch will all go on to have bright futures, whilst the experience of players such as Dejan Lovren, Corentin Tolisso and Alexandre Lacazette should theoretically create a well-balanced squad.
Summer inertia lays poor foundations
However, for players to perform on the pitch, things need to run smoothly off of it. That has not been the case OL and it hasn’t been for some time. The DNCG’s transfer restrictions, imposed over the course of the summer transfer window, certainly hampered Les Gones’ start to the season, whilst the decision not to sack Laurent Blanc was, by Textor’s own admission, a mistake.
Whilst Blanc was far from the source of OL’s malaise, as events since have more than proven, there was a toxic atmosphere around the club at the start of the season. Sarcastically remarking that you will be sacked before the first game of the Ligue 1 campaign hardly lays the foundations for a successful season, essentially insisting that you need to be fired, as Blanc did just weeks later, even less so.
The spectre of the DNCG continues to loom over Lyon as the club continues to attempt to syphon off assets, whilst an ongoing restructuring taking place at the club is certainly creating a sub-optimal atmosphere in which to right the ship. It is therefore not merely an inevitability that the individual quality in the side will, without the correct conditions, miraculously begin shining through and that Lyon will drift to safety.
Lyon fans challenge Textor’s relegation denialism
That realisation dawned on new manager Fabio Grosso relatively early on. “For now, we can’t compete for the top places so of course, we can only fight to stay up,” said the Italian manager in early October. Lyon went into Sunday’s game at the Groupama Stadium bottom of the table and are the only side in Europe’s top five divisions without a victory so far this season. In Metz, they came up against a direct rival for relegation.
Lyon’s players and staff were greeted with several large banners reading “Objective: Stay up” when they took to the pitch. For OL fans, the fear of relegation is very real. “If Saint-Étienne come up and we go down, it’s the end of the world,” a Lyon fan told L’Équipe last week.
The content of Les Gones’ display did little to allay those fears. Lyon needed a late Skelly Alvero goal to salvage a draw against Metz. On paper, Lyon should have comfortably beaten Les Grenats; on paper, Lyon should be nowhere near the relegation places. Yet this is where they are.
“We did everything to get the win today. We won’t give up. I promise to give you everything and I hope that will be enough,” Grosso told Lyon’s ultras in the wake of the draw. As the Italian strikes an increasingly desperate tone, perhaps the message will finally hit home for Textor. Lyon, who are on their longest winless run since the 1965/66 season, are in a relegation fight, whether he realises it or not.