dimanche 26 septembre 2010

The Second Coming of the Stéphanois?

Green goal-getter, Dimitri Payet.

It's lazy to suggest that St. Etienne is a club cursed by its illustrious past. Why lament a trophy cabinet that remains the largest and most glittering in France? But the Stéphanois last won Ligue 1 in 1981 and entered football purgatory soon afterwards. Just as St. Etienne's disappointments were magnified by what came before, any hint of a resurgence is greeted with unique expectation.

The current side head the table and on Saturday overcame Lyon in the 100th Rhône derby - the most eagerly awaited in decades. Pundits agree that St. Etienne are punching above their weight, but that view is invariably aired in tandem with sentimental recollections of the club's halcyon days. The implication being that the Stéphanois are simultaneously over and under-performing.

St. Etienne finished the 2008-2009 season in 17th place. This season, the team has accumulated more points in six matches than it had by Christmas last year. The festive period was something of a tipping point as it saw Christophe Galtier, previously Alain Perrin's assistant, promoted to manager. Galtier has since sought to blend a squad of youth and experience, proving himself adept at developing young players and shrewd in the mercato. He must also be thankful to have inherited a captain such as Loïc Perrin, sidelined for the majority of last season but now fit and clearly demonstrating why he has attracted the attention of numerous Premier League scouts.

Three players in particular represent Galtier's philosophy as well as his good fortune: Perrin, Laurent Batlles and and Dimitri Payet. The manager has shifted his captain from the right wing to central midfield, alongside him (and, in fact, sitting a little deeper) is the thirty-five year old Batlles, recruited for free from Grenoble this summer. Against Lyon, the veteran played the 402nd league match of his career. Galtier's other notable signings were defenders Sylvain Marchal and Carlos Bocanegra, thirty and thirty-one respectively. In contrast, Payet is twenty-three and was one of five players (including Perrin) under twenty-six in Saturday's starting line-up. The Réunionais striker is the talk of Ligue 1 having scored seven goals in seven matches this season. Lauded for his pace, vision and technical ability, Payet is a product of the celebrated academy at Nantes-Atlantique. Doubts persist about his robustness and consistency but, for now, they're muted by goals, goals, goals.

Players and manager alike have been at pains to emphasize the season's infancy and insist that greater obstacles await St. Etienne, not least Marseille's visit to the Stade Geoffrey-Guichard next weekend. The champions have bagged more goals than their hosts but are nursing a vulnerable defense. Marseille will pose a more complicated challenge than Lyon but Payet and co. should be confident of gaining victory. As for the long term prospects of the Stéphanois, it's difficult to envisage the team's ageing elements - who generally occupy defensive poitions - being as resolute in May as they have been in August and September. But a dramatic loss of form seems equally unlikely and I firmly believe that Payet and fellow young gun Emmanuelle Rivière (the club's highest scorer last season and three years Payet's junior) will supply sufficient goals to secure St. Etienne European qualification.

The second coming of the Stéphanois? No. But a purple patch that will do much to restore faith in a fallen idol.

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