Pitchside Europe

Saint-Etienne suffer derby day stage fright again

Saint-Etienne are a club moving in the right direction once again but their passionate support has been left frustrated by the team's continued impotence in what is, for them, the biggest fixture of all.

It is 31 years since Les Verts won the last of their 10 league titles, and 30 years since they reached a major cup final. But of more significance for Saint-Etienne right now is the fact that they have still not beaten bitter rivals Lyon at home since April 1994.

Sunday brought the 105th instalment of the Rhone derby, one of the most passionate in the French game, as bourgeois Lyon came up against working-class Saint-Etienne. One city in which football, to many, is just an afterthought despite Lyon's remarkable success over the last decade; another where the population lives and breathes the game, an unusual phenomenon in France and something only really matched in Marseille and in Lens in the industrial north.

But there was more than just local supremacy at stake this time, with both sides looking for points to stay in contention towards the top of the table.

This was the first Rhone derby to feature two teams in the top three coming into the weekend since September 1980, when Jean Tigana's Lyon held Michel Platini and Les Verts to a 1-1 draw in front of almost 50,000 at the Stade de Gerland.

Lyon have been excellent this season, but Saint-Etienne had reason to be optimistic. They were unbeaten in 13 matches in all competitions, a run that included beating Paris Saint-Germain twice, 2-1 at the Parc des Princes in the league and then on penalties at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard - the home that Sainté fans call the Cauldron - in the League Cup quarter-finals.

For neutrals it was a mouth-watering prospect, but in the end the tense nature of the occasion rather ruined the spectacle.

"The 105th derby never gave the Cauldron the chance to increase in temperature," said Le Progrès. To L'Equipe it was "such an eagerly anticipated and such a disappointing derby."

Lyon were reduced to 10 men early in the second half when Mouhamadou Dabo, the former Saint-Etienne full-back, stupidly got himself sent off with a head-butt to the chest of Max-Alain Gradel. It had more than a touch of the Zinedine Zidane on Marco Materazzi about it, but the home side were unable to capitalise on Dabo's moment of madness.

Lyon coach Rémi Garde took off a quiet Yoann Gourcuff and sent on Michel Bastos, and the Brazilian winger decided the derby with a powerfully-struck 65th-minute free-kick that Saint-Etienne goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier probably should have dealt with.

The home side's evening ended with the sending-off of Alejandro Alonso for two bookings a minute apart. It was a deflating conclusion to a forgettable night.

"There were favourable results for us elsewhere over the weekend and we had to at least take a point from this game," said Saint-Etienne coach Christophe Galtier, who worked as assistant to Alain Perrin at Lyon in their league and cup double-winning 2007-08 season.

"Our opponents were a bit better than us. My team gave everything but they were nervous," added Galtier, who relieved some of his own tension in the build-up to the game by attending a Johnny Hallyday concert on Thursday evening.

Saint-Etienne now lie in fourth place, eight points behind leaders Lyon and three behind both Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille. They have not been so high up the table this far into a season since returning from exile in the second division in 2004. Now they must regroup before being swallowed up by the chasing pack.

The outlook, however, remains positive. Galtier has done a magnificent job since taking over three years ago this week, and has a well-balanced squad, in which the standout player is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Gabon striker who scored 16 league goals last season and already has eight in 15 games this season.

With burly Brazilian striker Brandao, lightning-fast winger Romain Hamouma, the usually rock-solid Ruffier in goal and the neat and tidy Jérémy Clément and Renaud Cohade in midfield, and plenty of talent coming from the club's academy, Galtier has a group capable of finishing in the top three this season.

If they can do that, then fans will forgive their team's perennial inability to perform against their old rivals.

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by Andrew Scott