Saint-Etienne prepares to face French rival Lyon
Saint-Etienne and Lyon will meet for the 101st time in their history on Saturday, and the derby promises to be intense with the rivals level on points in the French league.
Lyon lost at home to Saint-Etienne last September. That 1-0 defeat angered Lyon fans so much they chanted for coach Claude Puel's dismissal as the result left the club hovering above the relegation zone.
But Puel has turned the team's fortunes around, leading Lyon into sixth place. Saint-Etienne is fifth.
Aside from the pain of losing ground to their rivals, both teams can ill afford to lose as they already trail French leader Lille by seven points. Lille hosts Toulouse on Sunday.
Lyon defender Pape Diakhate, a Saint-Etienne player last season, is suspended for Saturday night's game and is sad to miss out on a visit to Saint-Etienne's compact and noisy Geoffroy-Guichard Stadium.
"When I found I was suspended for the derby, I was very upset," Diakhate said. "There will be an incredible atmosphere inside (the stadium). I'm absolutely devastated not to taking part."
The Senegal center-back's consistent performances were crucial in helping "Les Stephanois" avoid relegation last term.
"I couldn't stay at Saint-Etienne, the option to buy me was too high. That's football," Diakhate said. "I left with good memories and the feeling I got the job done."
But Diakhate's partnership at Lyon with Brazilian defender Cris has yet to properly gel. They both had a poor game in the 2-1 away defeat to Valenciennes two weeks ago that ended Lyon's mini-run of eight games unbeaten in all competitions.
Lyon's progress in its third season under Puel's guidance has rarely been smooth.
His pragmatic work ethic does not seem to suit his most gifted players, particularly France playmaker Yoann Gourcuff.
The 24-year-old Gourcuff's form has dipped severely since his ?26.5 million move from Bordeaux. At times, Gourcuff has looked completely lost and seems to have little faith in Puel's rigid methods.
Gourcuff gave an interview last week to a regional newspaper in which he said had been much more comfortable when he played under Laurent Blanc at Bordeaux.
Blanc, now coach of France, led Bordeaux to the league title three seasons ago, with Gourcuff scoring 12 league goals. In 14 league games this season, he has found the net just once so far.
Argentina striker Lisandro Lopez has also struggled recently and has not scored in his last five games - perhaps understandably seeing as Puel has been playing him out wide as a left-winger.
Saint-Etienne has won its last two games and seems to have rediscovered the attacking flair that helped it briefly move top of the French league after it beat Lyon on Sept. 25.
Coach Christophe Galtier's team held first place for another week but then gradually slipped down the table and by December Saint-Etienne was down in 11th spot and fans were secretly fearing another relegation scrap.
But key players have since come back into form.
Highly-rated striker Emmanuel Riviere scored twice in last weekend's 2-1 win at Montpellier, and winger Bakary Sako got both goals the previous week in the 2-1 home win against Toulouse.
Lille, meanwhile, has a comfortable five-point lead. But Paris Saint-Germain and Rennes are both chasing hard and also have home matches this weekend. PSG plays Lens on Saturday, and Rennes faces Nice on Sunday.
A point behind those two teams in fourth place is Marseille, which is away to Sochaux on Saturday.
In Saturday's other games, it is: Arles-Avignon vs. Marseille; Bordeaux vs. Caen; Monaco vs. Lorient, and Nancy vs. Auxerre. Valenciennes hosts Brest in Sunday's other game.