Lyon threatened to sue their own supporters this week. After becoming increasingly frustrated by the leadership of coach Rudi Garcia and club president Jean-Michel Aulas, fans had started posting pictures on social media of both men in clown makeup. Lyon responded with a remarkable statement that said: “The club will now file legal complaints for all content, posted or shared on its social networks, which may constitute abuse, defamation, threat, harassment or incitement to hate or violence.” The relationship between Lyon and their fans has been toxic and vitriolic over recent years, but it had never been this acrimonious.
Supporters groups – notably the prominent fangroup Bad Gones – have been vehemently critical of the club for some time. Last season, when Bruno Génésio was still in charge, his daughter was insulted by fans in Lyon city centre, which led to an altercation between the manager and fans. The animosity has continued into Garcia’s spell in charge.
Garcia took over as manager last October. He was meant to be a safe pair of hands after the abject failure of Sylvinho, but many Lyon fans were furious about his appointment. It was a strange choice given that Garcia had recently left Marseille – with whom Lyon share an intense rivalry – after a below-par year in which the club did not even qualify for Europe.
Lyon have the capacity to produce big performances in big games – as they showed again last week in their 1-0 win over Juventus in the Champions League – but they have often looked blunt and stodgy this season, much like Marseille did while Garcia was in charge there. They have been particularly short of creativity and cutting edge in recent months after both talisman Memphis Depay and major summer signing Jeff Reine-Adélaïde suffered long-term knee injuries in December.
Garcia is unpopular, but he has not been the only target of the fan ire. Centre-back Marcelo was repeatedly picked out for criticism from supporters, a relationship that deteriorated to the point where a fan jumped over the barriers during Lyon’s 2-2 draw with Leipzig just before Christmas to display a banner that depicted him as a donkey and told him to “get lost”. Marcelo’s form has recovered significantly since then but the abuse was so intense that he tried to leave the club in January.
Fan unrest boiled over once again this weekend in the buildup to the visit of St Étienne for France’s most keenly felt derby. Nine people were injured in a brawl between the two sets of supporters in Lyon on Saturday night.
If this season has been difficult for Lyon, it has been disastrous for St Étienne. They also sacked a manager in the autumn. Ghislain Printant, who had only been promoted from assistant coach to the top job in the summer, was sent packing after just eight games. Having been regulars in the Europa League in recent years, St Étienne somehow found themselves bottom of Ligue 1 going into his final league game in charge. Claude Puel, the former Southampton and Leicester City manager, was appointed to replace him back in October.
Puel enjoyed a brilliant start. He guided St Étienne to a 1-0 win over Lyon in his first game in charge and went went unbeaten in his first nine matches in all competitions. For a brief moment, it looked like St Étienne would be challenging for a top-three spot this season. However, that unbeaten run came to an end and they collapsed. When the derby kicked off on Sunday night they were 16th in the league, just two points above the relegation zone, having lost nine of their previous 12 games.
Injuries have been a huge problem for Puel. Denis Bouanga, a summer signing from Nîmes, was in brilliant form during their unbeaten run but he picked up a foot injury in January. So many of their key players – including Yohan Cabaye, Zaydou Youssouf, Wahbi Khazri and the Arsenal-bound William Saliba – have missed significant chunks of the campaign. Puel has resorted to tinkering with formations, introducing various underprepared youngsters and rotating his large squad. He has used 29 players in 2020 alone.
Puel even chose to drop influential senior player and goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier for his team’s match against Montpellier last week. Ruffier was reportedly enraged by the decision. His agent accused Puel of establishing “a dictatorial power relationship” in the club and “spitting on a St Étienne legend”. Unsurprisingly, Ruffier did not return to the starting XI this weekend.
Amid a raucous atmosphere at the Parc OL – matching the combustible one at both clubs – Lyon dominated the derby. Puel set up his team to little more than soak up pressure and, by the time Moussa Dembélé headed in the opening goal for Lyon in the 27th minute, it felt inevitable. With Lyon’s new Brazilian midfielder Bruno Guimarães dictating the play with some superb passing, St Étienne looked like a team in a relegation battle. Puel’s men stirred in the second half, with Bouanga unlucky not to catch Anthony Lopes out at his near post with a clever free-kick, but they had few clear chances. Dembélé scored a penalty in the 96th minute – chipping the ball into the net Panenka-style – to give the hosts a deserved 2-0 win.
Lyon are now up to to fifth in the league and can set their sights on the top three, but Garcia’s recent record suggests success may be difficult to achieve in the longer term. Puel, meanwhile, is starting to run out of time at St Étienne. His team have no intensity, no edge and seemingly no plan. Relegation is a real concern.
This season has been punctuated by things for Lyon and St Étienne: fan aggression, poor form, social media vitriol, managerial sackings and the threat of lawsuits over clowns. The one thing the season has not been is funny.
Ligue 1 talking points
• After starting his Marseille career with four goals in his first three games, striker Dario Benedetto had scored just two in 12 before his team’s trip to Nîmes on Friday. Although the goals have dried up, Benedetto’s workrate and link-up play have been key for Marseille as they remain comfortably best of the rest in Ligue 1 behind PSG. Benedetto enjoyed a dramatic return to goalscoring form in Marseille’s 3-2 win Friday, with a clinical hat-trick that included a sumptuous lob for his second goal. With Florian Thauvin back in training, Dimtri Payet desperate for a place in the France squad for Euro 2020 and Benedetto scoring again, Marseille are some force in Ligue 1. FFP remains a concern, but next season could be a bright one for André Villas-Boas and his players.
• When PSG’s creator-in-chief, Ángel Di María, went off injured just 16 minutes into PSG’s 4-0 win over Dijon, it looked like he might miss the club’s rapidly approaching Champions League last-16 second leg against Borussia Dortmund. With Thiago Silva likely to miss the game with injury, and both Marco Verratti and Thomas Meunier already suspended, losing another key player would be verging on the disastrous for Thomas Tuchel – whose future will likely be decided by the outcome of the tie. However, reports on Sunday night suggest the injury is a minor one and that the Argentinian should be ready for the huge game at the Parc des Princes next week. Cue sighs of relief in Paris.