It was not supposed to happen like this for Ligue 1, not with the way things looked a fortnight ago. PSG’s Champions League exit was perhaps down more to controversial circumstances and individual errors than the eliminations of Lyon and Rennes. However, despite the latter two sides having been given little chance in their ties against Barcelona and Arsenal, both entered the return legs in enviable positions, especially given the gulf in resources and reputation between them and their opponents. What followed for the two sides, however, was a pair of abject displays that will do little to dispel the “farmers’ league” trope that has been a millstone around the neck of Ligue 1 in the recent past.
Lyon, after all, had been arguably the surprise package of the Champions League group stage, being one of only two sides to finish unbeaten, and recording two near-unbelievable results against Manchester City. In the first leg, they had ridden their luck (and a poor outing from Luis Suárez) but had their chances in a goalless draw, not only keeping themselves in the tie but also denying the La Liga leaders an away goal.
In the return leg on Wednesday, however, rather than taking the game to Barcelona as they had at the Parc OL, Lyon were more negative with Lucas Tousart displacing the vastly more creative Houssem Aouar in midfield, and the sort of players who could prosper on the counter (Bertrand Traoré, Maxwel Cornet) given short shift. It is difficult to say anything new at this point on Bruno Génésio, Lyon’s alternately maddening and brilliant manager who has coaxed some of the club’s greatest “post-austerity” moments from the team (e.g. this season’s group stage, the win over PSG, and 2017’s Europa League semi-final) but has also stumbled badly when handed the initiative, unsure whether to stick or twist.
One could forgive Génésio to some degree given the level of performance from Lionel Messi; such was the Argentine’s play it was unlikely that Lyon would have progressed in any event, but a negative approach from the outset without the proper weapons to play on the counter meant that Lyon’s hopes of progression, genuinely realistic, were always going to founder. Les Gones can still take heart in their progress to the semi-finals of the Coupe de France, where a win over Rennes could see them into a final which would see Lyon earn a first trophy in seven years, a run which has done nearly as much to demoralise the club’s supporters as has the bevy of one-way traffic in the transfer market.
That traffic ensures that his summer will be one of change, as it so often is in Lyon; as well as his players, Génésio may well be on the move, with chairman Jean-Michel Aulas seemingly disposed to install a more ambitious manager. A Coupe de France win, progress to the knockout stage of the Champions League and a top three finish is a strong season for Lyon, but the club remain unable to shake a lack of decisiveness, both on and off the pitch, and something needs to change for Lyon to make the best of the talent that they have.
Rennes, under Julien Stéphan, will also be disappointed to have blown a 3-1 lead against Arsenal. Yet the young manager, who has been key to the Breton side’s improvement in recent months, also got his approach wrong at the Emirates on Thursday. Like Lyon, the occasion may have been a bridge too far for the somewhat callow Stéphan and his inexperienced (in European terms) group of players, but Rennes failed to take any initiative against Unai Emery’s side, even knowing that an away goal would have changed Arsenal’s position from difficult to desperate.
It is difficult to slate Stéphan too much here, but the fact of the matter is that on a historic night for his club, he failed to seize the opportunity. Rennes, barring winning the Coupe de France, are an outside shot at best to get back into Europe next season, even with a match in hand. Injuries have curtailed Rennes’ season to some degree, but the club’s hierarchy have been investing at a near-historic level in recent windows and a slinking exit when progression seemed a real possibility is a disappointment.
Wherever each of PSG, Lyon, and Rennes find themselves next season, the current campaign’s tenor of disappointment and what-about-ism is one that is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. It is a certainty that on their day, French sides in Europe have the talent and wherewithal to genuinely go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite, but it seems it is now a matter of getting the clubs themselves to believe that they can do so on a consistent basis. Until that happens, Ligue 1 will continue to struggle with this crisis of identity and belief, one that seems unfortunately self-inflicted.
• The weekend’s main event was “Le Classique,” and Marseille, despite failing to win, gave a more than impressive account of themselves before Steve Mandanda’s sending off, taking the initiative throughout and quickly pulling a goal back after going behind just before the interval. Mandanda, the club’s lone source of continuity from their most recent era of success under Didier Deschamps, was among those called up by his former club manager for Les Bleus last Thursday, but it’s hard to justify his inclusion with other, younger options also available (Lille’s Mike Maignan). It would be harsh to come down too hard on Mandanda, but with Marseille tantalisingly close to a return to the Champions League, it is hard not to think of Mandanda needing to be placed on the shelf as Dimitri Payet, Adil Rami, and Luiz Gustavo have been in recent weeks.
• Could Guingamp pull off the impossible? The Breton side earned a nervy win over Dijon in a relegation six-pointer and moved off the bottom of the table, and above both Caen and their opponents in the process. For a side that looked dead and buried a month ago, the Breton side have made strides in recent weeks, recording two wins and two draws in their last five matches. Avoiding the relegation play-off is still a stretch, with Amiens a further seven points ahead, but for the first time since the beginning of the campaign, there is now a modicum of positivity at the Stade Roudourou.
• Finally, Lyon shook off their abject performance against Barcelona to top Montpellier 3-2. It was a win made unnecessarily nervy by a late goal from Souleymane Camara and a missed penalty from Nabil Fékir, but one which, coupled with Lille’s loss to Monaco, saw Les Gones edge closer to the top two. Martin Terrier scored an opportunistic opener, his fourth of the season, and there is an increasing sense that young attacker is starting to come into his own.