Monaco and Lyon picked up somewhat lucky wins to keep the battle for the Champions League places alive this weekend, but the top story in Ligue 1 was easily Strasbourg’s shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain. The leaders are still nine points clear of their nearest challengers, Lyon, and do not look like being reeled in, but this win is further proof of the remarkable return of one of eastern France’s most storied clubs. Strasbourg is a city with a a complicated cultural past that is caught between two countries, so it is fitting that its football team is similarly star-crossed.
Le Racing were founded in 1906 and are one of France’s oldest clubs. They have a decorated history that includes titles in all of France’s major competitions – the Championship in 1979, the Coupe de France in 1951, 1966, 2001 and the Coupe de la Ligue in 1997 and 2005 – but it would be an understatement to say they have fallen on hard times in the last few years.
A fairly successful club historically, Strasbourg won Ligue 1 in 1979 before spending much of the next 30 years bouncing between Ligue 1 and Ligue 2. The last decade has been tumultuous and painful for the club. They were relegated from Ligue 1 after the 2007-08 season and things deteriorated quickly from there. Their massively unpopular owner, Philippe Ginestet, managed to get into an altercation with then-manager Gilbert Gress, which resulted in the fans’ favourite being sacked after just two matches in August 2009.
At the end of that season they were relegated to France’s third tier, where the team battled for promotion but were undermined by the scandalous behaviour of new owner Jafar Hilali, who not only tried to prevent the club from being promoted but also took them into the regional leagues on financial terms as insolvency loomed. Even admission into France’s fifth tier was a compromise brokered by Frédéric Sitterlé, a local businessman who subsequently sold out to club legend and Alsace native (and former West Ham, Portsmouth and Blackburn player) Marc Keller for €1.
Keller received aid from local authorities to help manage the club’s debt and oversaw successive promotions back to the third tier. Attempts to get back into the professional ranks were not exactly smooth and some frustrating seasons followed, including missing promotion to Ligue 2 by a single point in 2014-15. Strasbourg won the third-tier Championnat National in 2015-16 and finally brought professional football back to the Stade de la Meinau.
The team’s improvement continued last season under Thierry Laurey as they picked up seven wins and three draws in their last 10 matches to win Ligue 2 and return to the top flight. After two promotions in as many seasons, they were back where they feel they belong. This season has had its rough moments but the team has coalesced remarkably in the last few weeks, something they capped with their victory over Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday.
Questions were asked in the summer about the team’s experience and defensive ability, but Laurey’s attention to detail and ingenuity have fashioned them into a solid side. Relegation is still a threat – they are 16th, just two points above the play-off place – but they are more than the sum of their parts and endeavour to play a relatively attractive counterattacking style of football. With only one defeat in their last 10 matches across all competitions, they now feel no opponent is too formidable, something that will have been reinforced after Saturday’s result.
The win against Paris Saint-Germain showcased Laurey’s ability as a coach but it also showed how his players have improved and grown over the last few years. While the squad has been steadily improved through transfers under Keller’s stewardship, two of the starting XI on Saturday had played for the club in the third tier: Stéphane Bahoken and Dimitri Liénard.
Bahoken’s sublimely taken winner, which embodied the team’s frightening ability on the counter, was the more eye-catching of Strasbourg’s two goals. His brilliant shot across the face of goal with the match tied at 1-1 midway through the second half not only brought euphoric scenes at the Stade de la Meinau but it also gave the the little-used striker some personal vindication. Bahoken joined the club from Nice’s reserves in 2014 and was an eager contributor last season, with seven goals, but he has often been left on the bench this season. Having risen from the third division with the club, he will have taken great satisfaction from scoring such an historic first goal in Ligue 1.
Liénard may even had felt a bigger sense of fulfilment after his lovely, curling free-kick on to the head of Da Costa helped Strasbourg open the scoring. Like Bahoken, Liénard, has risen with the club through the ranks of French football since joining them in 2013. However, unlike Bahoken, who was often used from the bench last season, Liénard’s uphill struggle for his place in the team only started this season. Liénard laid on 11 assists last season – the second highest in Ligue 2 – but after a poor showing in Strasbourg’s opening game this season – a 4-0 defeat to Lyon – he seemed more of a luxury than a necessity and was dropped as the team fought to keep their heads above water. An injury to Corgnet gave him another chance and he grasped it. He returned for a defeat to Nantes, but since then Strasbourg have lost just once in 10 competitive fixtures, and that was a game Liénard missed through suspension.
Liénard is now giving the team more than just his trademark dead-ball ability to succeed in Ligue 1. He has racked up four assists (only Neymar and Florian Thauvin have more in the league) and a couple of goals, and is evolving into a complete midfielder. If Liénard and Strasbourg continue to perform like they did on Saturday, those virtues will be rewarded come the end of the season, a just conclusion after their indignities in the last decade.
• Christophe Galtier transformed St Étienne from relegation candidates into established European regulars during his nine-year stay, but the club grew stale and the team became unimaginative towards the end of his reign. Although a new beginning was in sight when Óscar García was appointed in the summer, this season has quickly become one of their most disastrous for some time. The humiliating 5-0 home defeat to rivals Lyon last month prompted García to resign. The club bravely appointed Julien Sablé, their 37-year-old youth team coach who played for the club between 1997 and 2007, but he has done little to move the club on from the insipid, one-dimensional displays that forced Galtier to depart. The club have now had to install journeyman French coach Jean-Louis Gasset as joint-manager as Sablé lacks the required coaching qualifications to remain in sole charge. Their 1-1 draw with Nantes this weekend was comfortably the best result Sablé has achieved so far but the rebuilding process after Galtier may take longer than anyone at this proud, historic, well supported club would have hoped.
• Few sides in Ligue 1 are renowned for their attacking flair but, as their pulsating 3-2 win over Bordeaux on Friday night proved, Dijon seem intent on carrying the flag all on their own. Olivier Dall’Oglio’s team are now the top scorers outside of the top four and this victory has taken them into the top half of the table. Wesley Said’s 86th-minute winner came after Brazilian starlet Malcom had opened the scoring with a 40-yard thunderbolt – his second goal of the season contender in four days. It looked like Dijon would struggle this year without their top scorer from last season, Loïs Diony, who has not scored a single goal for St Etienne since his move, but Dall’Oglio has moulded a waspish, skilful side who play with an intensity that is difficult to contain. Although his team may not harbour genuine European hopes and they are not particularly solid defensively (only the hapless Metz have conceded more), Dall’Oglio’s refreshing outlook looks to have ensured safety for Dijon once more and made certain that Stade Gaston-Gerard is the place to go if you want goals in Ligue 1 this year.
• They still have 22 games to play in Ligue 1 this season but it’s time for Metz to start planning for a return to Ligue 2. Their 3-1 defeat at Nice on Saturday evening was their 14th loss in 16 games and they have scored just six goals all season and are yet to win a point at home. Metz conceded the most goals in Ligue 1 last season and were lucky to stay up. They relied on Ismaila Sarr and the loan singing of experienced Ligue 1 striker Cheick Diabaté, both of whom left in the summer. Diabaté returned to Osmanlispor and Sarr was sold to Rennes for €10m. Their replacements, the notoriously wayward Nolan Roux and Emmanuel Rivière, left Philippe Hinschberger without much hope and, inevitably, he was sacked in October. The arrival of the well-respected Frédéric Hantz has not helped and they currently sit 14 points from safety. Lens’ tally of 17 points in the 1988-89 season is the fewest ever achieved in Ligue 1 history; Metz could lower that record this season.
Dijon 3-2 Bordeaux, Strasbourg 2-1 Paris Saint-Germain, Lille 1-0 Toulouse, Monaco 1-0 Lille, Nice 3-1 Metz, Rennes 2-0 Amiens, Troyes 0-1 Guingamp, St Étienne 1-1 Nantes, Caen 1-2 Lyon, Montpellier 1-1 Marseille.