This article also featured as part of the Ligue 1 review on Guardian Sport and GFFN.
Le Classique, between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain, is the most famous match in French football but the Rhône derby between St Etienne and Lyon is by far the fiercest. To say winning this game is preferable to winning the league for both sets of supporters isn’t far from the truth. That viciousness was underlined on Sunday night as Lyon won 5-0 at St Etienne in an encounter that featured freewheeling attacking football, a sublime display from Nabil Fékir, violence and riot police on the pitch.
Lyon are up to third in Ligue 1, just three points behind champions Monaco, despite an inconsistent start to the campaign. They have scored 32 goals in their first 12 matches but their performances have lacked the control and assuredness provided by the departed Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Maxime Gonalons. They have already been involved in three 3-3 draws against mid-table sides this season, showing their tendency to score as easily as they concede. Nevertheless, Lyon’s new players are starting to gel as the balance shifts from erratic to exciting. They have now won their last six games in a row, boasting an aggregate score of 20-3 and the scalps of Monaco and Everton (twice) in those fixtures.
Their trip to St Etienne started in bizarre fashion as thick smoke from flares in the home end led referee Clement Turpin to halt proceedings just 60 seconds into the match. The encounter restarted seven minutes later and it didn’t take long for St Etienne to press the self-destruct button, conceding the opening goal 15 seconds after taking a corner. Romain Hamouma took the offending corner, woefully ballooning his pass into the path of Nabil Fékir. The Lyon captain galloped up the field and found Houssem Aouar, who laid the ball on to Memphis Depay on the edge of the St Etienne box. Depay’s pinpoint shot through Roneal Pierre-Gabriel’s legs outsmarted goalkeeper Stéphane Ruffier and Lyon had opened the scoring with just three minutes of football actually played.
St Etienne failed to recover and were 2-0 down 15 minutes later. Fékir, who has been on the brighter end of sparkling this season, tore forward once more and rifled home from the edge of the box. His return to the form that made him Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year in 2014-15 has been a long time coming. A disastrous knee injury suffered on international duty halted the stocky playmaker’s meteoric development. Bruno Génésio’s 22 months in charge have been up and down but his impact on Fékir has been one of his greatest achievements. He has made the 24-year-old captain, moved him into the No10 role and given him the responsibility of dictating play. Génésio has helped his most talented player return to to talisman status, Fékir’s return to Didier Deschamps’ France squad this week being well deserved.
With Lyon 2-0 up, the game was already over. St Etienne lacked the gumption to mount anything that resembled a comeback and the normally white-hot, incessant din of the Stade Geoffroy Guichard was washed away. Óscar García, the manager appointed in June to replace long-term boss Christophe Galtier, now finds himself grappling with the same issues that troubled his predecessor: a squad devoid of creativity that is populated with flaky forwards, lumbering centre-backs and dearly misses its inspirational, injured captain Loïc Perrin.
Whereas the first half had been oddly surreal, the second quickly became an embarrassment for St Etienne. Lanky Swiss defender Leo Lacroix was promptly sent off after a rash challenge on Lyon’s tormenter-in-chief, Fékir, before Lyon’s teenage midfielder Houssem Aouar set up Mariano Diaz for the third just before the hour-mark. When Bertrand Traoré whipped in a fourth on 65 minutes, any score seemed possible, with all of Lyon’s forwards now on the scoresheet.
Cajoling vintage displays from Fékir has not been Génésio’s only achievement. He has also found an attacking formula in which Fékir can shine. Aouar, who is set to be this season’s breakout talent, offers silky, smooth passing alongside 20-year-old Lucas Tousart, who is surely a future Lyon captain. Kenny Tete and Marcal give defensive bolstering from full-back, providing Fékir with a solid base to orchestrate a front three overflowing with flare, pace and trickery.
Mariano Diaz’s power and intensity has helped him score nine goals in Ligue 1 since his move from Real Madrid this summer; fellow new man Bertrand Traoré’s rangy physique, directness and speed makes him dangerous when cutting in from the right; and Depay looks reborn after rarely showing such swagger and panache at Manchester United. Moulding such an inexperienced and potentially fractious group into an effective attacking ensemble has been quite a feat.
With St Etienne already routed, Fékir rounded off one of the host’s worst nights in their recent history and angered St Etienne ultras in the process. Lyon’s captain scored the fifth goal on the night – his 11th in the league this season – and then removed his shirt and held it up for the St Etienne fans to see, mirroring the now iconic image of Lionel Messi at the Bernabéu.
The St Étienne ultras were not impressed. Some of them vaulted barriers around the pitch before the game could restart, forcing swathes of riot police to enter the fray and block their advance. Lyon players swiftly exited before referee Clément Turpin led the remaining St Etienne players off with four minutes to play. St Etienne ultras have a chequered recent history; after violence erupted in last season’s derby they were banned for the visit of Rennes but broke into the ground to watch the match, which was meant to be played behind closed doors.
As the stadium slowly emptied it seemed as if the game would not be completed. However, half an hour later the teams returned to play out the final few minutes in a sparsely populated stadium as local time edged towards midnight. Lyon, with salt aimed firmly at wound, even went looking for a sixth.
Whether Génésio can maintain his side’s glorious attacking form remains to be seen. His team has only lost once in the league this season – 2-0 away at Paris Saint-Germain – and their European form remains impressive. If Fékir, Depay, Aouar and Mariano can keep this up, St Etienne won’t be the last team they humiliate this season. However, as Fékir’s ill-advised celebration shows, this enthralling, youthful side still have something to learn.
by Adam White