Pitchside Europe

Lyon exploit Parisian power vacuum

Bafetimbi Gomis (Reuters)

It wasn't meant to be this way. A third of the way through the Ligue 1 season, and the top nine clubs are separated by just six points.

France's top flight has in the past stood out as being the most open of Europe's leading leagues, but this year Paris Saint-Germain were supposed to have run away with the title, even by now.

At the same stage a year ago, PSG were top of the table and 12 points above Caen in ninth, but the capital club have hit the skids in recent weeks, culminating in Saturday's disastrous 2-1 home defeat to a Rennes side that played with nine men for most of the second half.

And instead we have a situation similar to that of two years ago, when just three points separated the top eight.

With the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic after a two-match suspension, it seems unlikely that PSG's current run of three games without a league win will last much longer, but in the meantime there is now hope that this season's race for the title will be an open one, rather than the "diabolically boring" procession for Carlo Ancelotti's side that sports daily L'Equipe told us we should have been in for.

"We are in crisis, I have no problem saying so," said Ancelotti on Saturday. And in the meantime Lyon have emerged as their most likely challengers.

They find themselves top of the table, a point clear of Bordeaux, two above PSG, and with a game in hand. OL have not been top this far into a season since 2008-09. Back then, they were undoubtedly the most powerful club in the land, but not now.

Despite last season's French Cup triumph, their first trophy since the double-winning campaign of 2007-08, interest in the team appeared to be on the wane in a city that has never been football-mad.

Crowds have been down as much as 20 percent, with sources close to the club saying tickets could not even be given away.

But Rémi Garde's side are winning games, and more than 33,000 turned out at the Stade de Gerland to watch Sunday's 3-0 victory against Reims. Against limited opposition, OL were nowhere near their best, and only an own-goal separated the sides until Bafétimbi Gomis and Lisandro López both scored towards the end.

Nevertheless, Lyon did what Marseille, Saint-Etienne, Valenciennes and Lille all failed to do over the weekend, as they climbed above PSG to the summit.

Former Arsenal defender Garde is seen by some as a genuine contender to succeed Arsène Wenger as Gunners manager when the time comes. For the moment, he seems happy at the helm of what is the strongest and best balanced squad in Ligue 1 after that of PSG.

Garde cannot call on any individual with the quality of Ibrahimovic, but Gomis and Lisandro have 11 league goals between them, 17 in all competitions. Behind them, Yoann Gourcuff has returned from his latest injury looking as hungry as ever, and the impact of Steed Malbranque has been astonishing.

After a year out of the game, the former Fulham, Tottenham and Sunderland player has been superb since returning to the club where he started his career. On Sunday, he helped set up Gomis for the second goal, and then provided the third for Lisandro with a perfectly-timed through ball.

"You can't compare them," said Reims coach Hubert Fournier, a former Lyon defender, when asked to give his opinion on OL and PSG.

"As a team, Lyon are much better organised and more disciplined, but PSG's attacking weapons are such that they can score at any time."

Lyon's target at the start of the season was a return to the Champions League, but Garde insisted last week that "there is no reason why we shouldn't be allowed to dream" when asked about his side's prospects of winning the title.

After beating Reims, he said: "I feel quite at ease in first place. Why would we not want to be there?"

But Garde is not getting carried away. The fixture list has been kind to his team so far, and that is about to change. Between now and Christmas, Lyon must go to Toulouse, Marseille, Saint-Etienne and Paris Saint-Germain, while they also entertain defending champions Montpellier.

Lyon are back on top, but it is far too early to say whether they are there to stay.

Andrew Scott - Pitchside Europe