What a difference four months make. At the beginning of September, Olympique Lyonnais were looking down the barrel of a bleak season. They had lost three of their first four Ligue 1 fixtures to sit in 17th place, and had also suffered a humiliating European exit to littleknown Romanian side Astra Giurgiu, sending the club into autumn without any European involvement for the first time in 17 years.
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Today, it is harder to assess which is the greater shock; the struggles of champions Paris Saint-Germain, a club with a budget superior to that of Ligue 1’s other 19 clubs put together, or that OL sit proudly atop the table.
It is not a position to which Lyon are entirely unaccustomed – they won the title seven times between 2002 and 2008, a French record – but in the current financial and sporting context within the club and in France in general, it is nothing short of remarkable.
President Jean-Michel Aulas, in office since 1987, has radically reconstructed the club’s business model since those glory years, which also took in three successive Champions League quarter-finals and a run to the semis in 2010.
“Aulas a toujours eu un plan” (Aulas always had a plan), read the headline above an article on the president’s strategy bearing fruit in Thursday’s L’Equipe.
That plan has been clear for a while. The senior team would incorporate more and more graduates from the club’s vaunted academy at Tola Vologe – just a stone’s throw from the club’s current home, Stade de Gerland – while cash was directed towards construction of a new stadium, some 14km outside the city centre in Decines.
Years of high-profile sales, with a project to shed big earners including Dejan Lovren, Lisandro Lopes and Michel Bastos, with little in the way of purchases to replace them, looked as if it had taken a near-fatal toll by the start of this campaign. What would be the point of a state-of-the-art, 60,000 capacity stadium is there wasn’t a team worthy of the name – or good enough to deliver European competition – to go in it?
Just past the halfway point in Ligue 1, this question is no longer asked. Lyon will again make no major purchases in the winter transfer window, but it doesn’t matter. Aulas’ decision to rely heavily on Tola Vologe graduates now looks like a masterstroke, rather than penny pinching.
Eight academy products were in the XI that started Saturday’s 2-0 win at Lens that kept OL top – their sixth victory in a row. Among them are France’s brightest young stars – Alexandre Lacazette, who has scored 20 times in the first 21 matches of the season, and creative foil Nabil Fekir, who has provided five assists while also scoring eight.
The reordering of the club’s priorities is clear. The three non-academy products that started against Lens – Christophe Jallet, Mahamoudou Dabo and Lindsay Rose – cost a total of €3.55m (Dh15m) in transfer fees. At €3m, midfielder Arnold Mvuemba (usually a substitute) is the club’s most expensive signing since the recruitment of Yoann Gourcuff for a club record 22m euros (Dh93.4m) in late August 2010.
The drop-off between Gourcuff in 2010, Mvuemba in 2012 and now, vividly underlines of just how deep a hole Aulas had dug himself to get here. While there is much romanticising of a young, homegrown team leading the way, the current policy is more than an ideological or ethical choice. It recalls the words of Danish economist Ester Boserup, that “necessity is the mother of invention."
The wild spending sanctioned by Aulas in an attempt to make the last leap towards joining Europe’s elite began with the 2007 arrival of Abdulkader Keita for €18m (Dh76.5m), and accelerated after the 2008 arrival of Claude Puel as coach. It brought OL to their knees.
When the alarm bells rung, thoughts of the academy were never far away. Even in the club’s years of plenty, the academy was considered important. Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Sidney Govou were the team’s front three for most of the doublewinning season of 2007/08 under Alain Perrin. If we go further back, names like Ludovic Giuly, Frederic Kanoute and Steed Malbranque provided strongservice before being sold on at a premium.
Remi Garde’s three-year tenure in charge of the first team was not without its challenges, as he oversaw drastic cost-cutting in his first senior job. Yet crucially, Garde was the perfect link man to help OL commute from the old model to the new one. The erstwhile assistant to Paul Le Guen and Gerard Houllier had since spent a year as director of the club’s academy, familiarising himself with the club’s best talent.
The quality of the graduates is no coincidence. Investment is key, with OL spending €8m (Dh33.9) per year on coaching staff, training and living facilities for their scholars.
While there is much romanticising of a young, homegrown team leading the way, the current policy is more than an ideological or ethical choice.
The current academy director, 44-year-old Stephane Roche, a former OL player and himself a Tola Vologe product, oversees the programme. Continuity and an understanding of the house style is important, with Jallet praising the club’s products as “conscientious” and “grounded” last week. It was one of the club’s most celebrated ones, captain Maxime Gonalons, who instigated the revival in September, leading impromptu fitness sessions in the city Parc Tete d’Or to improve stamina levels.
The academy spend has escalated in the light of construction delays with the new arena, Stade des Lumieres (in tribute to the brothers of the same name who created the first motion picture in history late in the 19th century), which is now due for delivery in January 2016. According to Aulas, 95 judicial enquiries were undertaken in respect to the stadium project, which “could have been finished in 2010”. The youth-heavy emphasis has thus been extended.
The idea of the new stadium is to enable, with Aulas explaining to L’Equipe that the new stadium will create “between 40m euros and €50m” of revenue in its first year, a figure that should be doubled within five years. The crucial difference between Lyon’s project and the other bright new stadiums that will help to host Euro 2016 is that OL will own their stadium, a first in France.
High rent almost pushed Marseille, another of the title contenders, to quit their iconic Stade Velodrome, which revealed its spectacularly redevelopment in October. The city council, which owns the stadium, initially demanded an €8m (Dh33.9m) annual sum. In the event, OM will pay €3m (Dh12.7m) this season (before taxes), rising to €4m (Dh16.9m) for each of the next two campaigns and being subject to review. Similarly, Lille – double winners in 2011 – are lumbered with a €6m (Dh25.5m) annual rent at their Stade Pierre Mauroy. OL’s ownership model is based on the templates laid down by Bayern Munich and Arsenal, speculating to accumulate.
Even with this bright future, OL are not out of the Financial Fair Play (FFP) woods yet, after it was announced in December that UEFA had asked the club to submit “additional information” about their finances before February.
Initially, the aim is for the increased income to help the club hold onto their best players, which is by no means guaranteed beyond the end of the season. Yet whether by accident or design, this vibrant young side is capturing the imagination of the public in France, and beyond.
Lionel Messi struck a stunning hat-trick to ensure Barcelona maintained the pressure on La Liga leaders Real Madrid with a 4-0 win away to Deportivo la Coruna to cut the gap at the top to one point.
Atletico Madrid, who dumped Real out the Copa del Rey in midweek, moved back to within four points of their city rivals in third as goals from Mario Mandzukic and Raul Garcia handed them a 2-0 win over managerless Granada.
In a change from his much criticised rotation policy, Barca boss Luis Enrique named the same side that beat Atletico 3-1 at home last weekend and was rewarded with another bright display illuminated by Messi's class in front of goal.
The Argentine's first effort of the game was brilliantly saved by Fabircio after a well-worked corner, but the Deportivo goalkeeper was helpless when the four-time World Player of the Year opened the scoring after 11 minutes with a thunderous header from Ivan Rakitic's cross.
Messi then showed a more subtle touch for his second with a delicate chip over the prone Fabricio to double Barca's advantage from Neymar's pass.
However, by contrast, Luis Suarez's troubles in front of goal continued as he fluffed his lines twice in the first-half with just Fabricio to beat.
Messi showed the Uruguayan how it should be done once more when he rounded off his 30th hat-trick for the club after the break when he cut inside onto his favoured left foot and fired into the far corner before an own goal from Deportivo defender Sidnei rounded off the scoring.
Real had to wait over an hour to make the breakthrough at the Alfonso Perez Coliseum before Ronaldo fired home from Karim Benzema's wonderful assist to set them on the road to victory.
"It is true at the start we didn't play with a lot of intensity," said Real boss Carlo Ancelotti.
"At the start we played a bit slow, but I liked the performance because the team played with intelligence and much better in the second-half than the first.
"I think the whole team played well, but the assist by Karim (Benzema) opened the game up for us. It was extraordinary."
After a sluggish start the European champions were denied by a series of fine saves by Getafe goalkeeper Jordi Codina either side of half-time, whilst Toni Kroos also struck the bar just before the break.
However, Codina's resistence was finally broken just before the hour mark with a brilliant team goal as Isco and James Rodriguez combined to free Benzema and the Frenchman produced an exquisite piece of skill on the byline to cut the ball back for Ronaldo to slam home.
Just four minutes later it was 2-0 as this time Rodriguez was the provider with a fine low cross that Gareth Bale prodded past Codina with the outside of his left foot.
And another sumptuous cross from Rodriguez 11 minutes from time allowed Ronaldo to plant a firm header past the helpless Codina to register his 36th goal of the season.
Atletico were less impressive as they laboured to victory against a Granada side that hasn't won in La Liga since September leading to the sacking of coach Joaquin Caparros on Friday.
The opening goal arrived 11 minutes before half-time when Diego Godin was hauled down by Abdoul Sissoko as he tried to reach Fernando Torres's cross and Mandzukic smashed home the resultant penalty for his 16th goal of the season.
Atletico enjoyed more control of the game after the break and finally sealed the points three minutes from time when substitute Garcia bundled home Arda Turan's cross at the back post.
Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud struck in each half as Arsenal stunned lacklustre champions Manchester City 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium.
Cazorla converted a 24th-minute penalty and Giroud headed home from a set-piece with 67 minutes gone to put a dent in City's Barclays Premier League title defence.
City, despite the return of Sergio Aguero, created little in what was a generally dull game and the result left them five points behind leaders Chelsea with a trip to Stamford Bridge to come in a fortnight.
Arsenal's victory put aside their well-documented recent struggles against top-four opponents and considerably enhanced their prospects of finishing in the Champions League positions this term.
The Gunners were thrashed 6-3 in the corresponding fixture last season and the odds again seemed against them as Aguero and Vincent Kompany returned to the City starting line-up.
But Aguero, who played up front alone in the first half, had a quiet game and City struggled to get anything going even though they dominated possession.
Arsenal looked the more incisive at times and fit-again captain Kompany was made to look rusty.
Kompany's defensive partner Martin Demichelis also had some moments of uncertainty and Arsenal went close to taking the lead from one of them.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seized on a weak Demichelis header and burst down the right before whipping in an inviting cross for Giroud but the Frenchman glanced his header wide.
The Gunners broke through five minutes later as Nacho Monreal attempted to play a one-two with Giroud and was impeded by Kompany as he continued his run into the box.
The Spaniard may have gone to ground easily but referee Mike Dean was in no doubt about the contact and Cazorla took full advantage from the spot.
City were unable to muster a dangerous response despite controlling plenty of the ball.
One good Pablo Zabaleta break yielded nothing and Aguero was off-target with a header from a James Milner cross.
Kompany's frustrating afternoon continued as he was booked for a heavy challenge on Giroud.
City boss Manuel Pellegrini reverted to his default 4-4-2 set-up after the break as Stevan Jovetic replaced Milner and moved alongside Aguero.
The change of approach initially appeared to work and Aguero had their first serious shot with an effort that deflected wide. Jesus Navas was the first to test David Ospina, the deputy keeper again preferred to Wojciech Szczesny, with a powerful effort that was parried away.
But the game also opened up and Sanchez curled an effort across goal after turning Zabaleta out wide. Dean then overlooked two possible fouls on the edge of the City area as a chance opened up for Aaron Ramsey on his return to the side but the Welshman shot over.
City produced another good move but Laurent Koscielny made a vital interception as Navas fired a cross in Aguero's direction.
Arsenal applied the killer touch after 67 minutes after Sanchez was fouled by Jovetic. Cazorla clipped a free-kick into the area and Giroud reacted quickest, losing his marker Fernando to head home in simple fashion.
It was not dissimilar to an Everton equaliser which also cost City points last week and the defending of set-pieces could be a concern.
Sanchez threatened another with a powerful strike from the edge of the area but Joe Hart saved well.
City tried to hit back and Monreal cleared unconvincingly over his own bar but the hosts did not consistently trouble their visitors.
Arsenal efficiently and professionally played out the remainder of the game as City, despite the introduction of Frank Lampard, lacked inspiration.
As in previous years, it appeared the absence of Yaya Toure due to the African Nations Cup had proved costly and City will be anxious to raise their levels when they face Chelsea.
JOE HART : Almost got a hand to Santi Cazorla's penalty and could do little about Olivier Giroud's header from point-blank range. 6/10
PABLO ZABALETA : Fared relatively well keeping Alexis Sanchez quiet in the first half. Was only beaten by the Chilean on a couple of occasions. 6
VINCENT KOMPANY : A bit unlucky to concede a penalty but was still poor throughout. Took frustration out on Giroud in the 41st minute and was rightly booked. 5
MARTIN DEMICHELIS : Failed to keep Giroud quiet. Lack of pace a problem for City. 5
GAEL CLICHY: Failed to have any impact against his former team. 5
FERNANDINHO: Surprisingly substituted in the second half. Was City's best player. Surging runs from deep made City look dangerous. 7
FERNANDO: Sub-par. Lost Giroud for second goal and failed to keep Cazorla quiet. 5
JESUS NAVAS : Stung David Ospina's hands with a powerful drive but otherwise ineffective. 6
DAVID SILVA : Very, very quiet. Failed to provide the spark City needed. 5
JAMES MILNER : Performed poorly back in midfield. Only contribution was two wayward crosses. 5
SERGIO AGUERO : Still short of match-fitness. Lacked power and pace. Only had a few, poor attempts at goal. 6
STEVAN JOVETIC (on for Milner, 45mins): Gave City a bit more presence up front but still unable to unlock away defence. 6
FRANK LAMPARD (on for Fernandinho, 62mins): Also failed to swing the game in City's favour. 5
EDIN DZEKO (on for Navas, 76mins): Last throw of the dice for Manuel Pellegrini. Did not test Ospina. 5
DAVID OSPINA : Relatively assured performance. Not tested until 46th minute. 6
HECTOR BELLERIN: Showed maturity beyond his years in keeping Navas quiet. 7
PER MERTESACKER: Big German kept Aguero in check and looked confident throughout. 7
LAURENT KOSCIELNY : Vital deflection to deny Aguero in 60th minute. Booked. 7
NACHO MONREAL: Looked poor going forward at the start but improved as the game wore on and won the penalty that put Arsenal ahead. 7
FRANCIS COQUELIN : Solid and workmanlike in front of the back four. Wise decision from Wenger to select him ahead of Mathieu Flamini. 7.
AARON RAMSEY : Blazed over a good chance in the second half but otherwise just about good enough. 6
SANTI CAZORLA : Scored a perfectly-placed penalty to put Arsenal ahead and sneaked into the pockets between City's midfield and defence well. Masterful trickster. 8
ALEX OXLADE-CHAMBERLAIN : Put a good cross in for Giroud and worked tirelessly throughout. 7
ALEXIS SANCHEZ : Failed to score but caused City problems with his movement and trickery. Outshone Aguero in the battle of the South American stars. 8
OLIVIER GIROUD : Clinical header to seal the win. 8
TOMAS ROSICKY (on for Oxlade-Chamberlain, 65mins): Calmed things down in midfield as City pushed for a goal. 7
KIERAN GIBBS (on for Sanchez, 83mins): No time to make an impact. 6
MATHIEU FLAMINI (on for Ramsey, 83mins): Brought on to waste time and add fresh legs to the Arsenal team. 6
West Ham 3-0 Hull City
Hammers striker Andy Carroll said his side were eyeing European football after he scored the opener against Hull.
Second-half goals from Carroll, Morgan Amalfitano and Stewart Downing secured all three points for the east London club following a run of four games without a win.
Asked if West Ham could qualify for Europe, England striker Carroll said: "There's a belief in the dressing room, I don't see why not."
Hull were punished for failing to take their chances and this defeat left them in the relegation zone.
Frustrated Hull manager Steve Bruce said: "The way we played in the first half delighted all of us connected with Hull but in my experience you have to score.
"For all the good work we did, it unravelled really. You can't let them off the hook like that."