The suspense is over... since mid-November actually, when Lyon had their sixth consecutive title in the bag and were able to concentrate properly on yet another early failure in Europe. They duly obliged, and let Roma go on to bigger things in the Champions League, while they focused on going through the motions at home and, in the end, did just enough to leave their nearest rivals, Marseille, 17 points behind. These two will represent France in the Champions League next year, but, as ever, it's impossible to guess how many of their current squads will have heeded the sirens' calls of more glamourous leagues by then. Lyon seem to have secured the ongoing services of their Brazilian spine, with Cris, Juninho and Fred staying on the banks of the Rhône, but are likely to lose Abidal, Malouda, Clerc, Govou, Wiltord, and possibly others. In Marseille, the main question marks hang over their three youngsters, Frank Ribéry, Samir Nasri, and Nigerian left-back with a missile launcher for a left foot, Taye Taiwo.
The first certainty for Lyon is that Gérard Houllier will not be steering them to their next early spring European disaster. The ex-Liverpool manager has resigned by his own mutual consent on the same day that Didier Deschamps was being resigned by the exclusive mutual consent of the Juventus board, presumably as a thank you gesture for taking the Old Lady straight back up to Serie A for his first season in charge, and in spite of a heavy points deduction. A straight swap is highly unlikely, but Deschamps is now perceived as a strong candidate for the Lyon job, while Houllier will probably disappear into the Australian bush. Unless Marseille snatch Deschamps, in a move that would see the man who captained them to their only European success (in 93) at the helm of the club for next season's Champions League campaign, with long-term caretaker manager, Albert Emon, returning to the club's youth set-up. Alain Perrin, of Premiership fame and who guided Sochaux to victory in the French cup and 7th place in the league, is also said to be interested in the Lyon job.
Unsurprisingly, most of the excitement this season was to be found further down the table. Much further down. Big guns Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain gave the phrase "squeaky bum" a whole new meaning by flirting dangerously with the drop zone for long periods. Both had to take drastic action and change managers mid-way through. Paul LeGuen managed to salvage his own career and the club's immediate future with an impressive late run which saw PSG finish in 15th after briefly touching rock-bottom for the first time ever. Monaco fired their Hungarian coach, Laszlo Boloni, early in the season after a disastrous start and put their trust in Laurent Banide, a young, unproven manager, who steadied the ship and eventually cruised comfortably into 9th place.
Sadly, another monument of French football was not so lucky. After fourty-four years in the top flight, eight titles and numerous cups, FC Nantes will be playing in Ligue 2 next season. A deep shock for a club whose name had come to define flowing, attacking football in France, with the expression "le jeu à la Nantaise" being a synonym for one-touch football. The enrollment of Fabien Barthez in the second half of the season smacked of desperate measures, and the episode summed up the club's woes, with the French goalkeeping legend letting in soft goals, walking out on his teammates in the middle of a game, and ultimately being chased out of the stadium, and away from the club, by angry fans. Those same angry fans who invaded their home pitch in protest four minutes from the end of the penultimate game of the season, demanding the board's resignation and, in the process, unwittingly producing the biggest shock of all. On the pitch, Nantes and Toulouse had been locked in a tedious 0-0 draw. The referee was unable to restart the game, the French FA stuck to the letter of the law and, despite the game being almost over at the time of the interruption, awarded Toulouse the 3 points, handing them an unbelievable lifeline and a huge psychological boost in their floundering quest for 3rd place and the preliminary round of the Champions League.
Last Saturday, at kick-off, the four teams vying for 3rd place were within two points of each other, with Lens (3rd) travelling to an already relegated Troyes, Rennes (5th) visiting a disappointing Lille, who had nothing to play for, and Toulouse (6th) and Bordeaux (4th) going head to head in the French capital of Rugby. The much coveted podium spot changed hands no less than five times in the course of the evening. Lens, who had spent more than two thirds of the season in the top 3, quickly fell behind at Troyes, and got their full-back Marco Ramos sent-off in the first half, which pretty much extinguished their challenge. Bordeaux went 1-0 up in Toulouse through their Brazilian Wendel, and hopped onto the podium.
Toulouse, however, refused to lie down. Their international strike force sprung into action, with Brazilian Paulo César and Cameroon international Achille Emana combining to provide Swedish center forward Johan Elmander for a spectacular hat-trick. With less than twenty minutes to go, le Stadium went crazy (yes, the Toulouse stadium is called le Stadium, that's its name), only to learn three minutes later that Rennes had opened the scoring in Lille. John Utaka had just propelled the club from Brittany into 3rd place for the first time in the whole season and into Champions League football for the first time ever. Now, if there is a right time to clinch that qualifying spot, a quarter of an hour from the end of the championship is certainly it. A nervous final fifteen minutes ensued, with the Rennes players, staff, and officials lining up along the touchline, getting ready to celebrate.
At the end of normal time, Rennes were well in control and even missed a good chance to kill the tie. At the end of the fourth minute of stoppage time, however, they conceded a free-kick at a distance that, at first glance, looked safe enough. From forty yards out, Obraniak floated it in and Fauvergue, who had come on late as a substitute, rose unchallenged to send a looping header over the stranded Rennes goalkeeper and, probably much to his surprise as a Lille player, score the most important goal in the history of Toulouse Football Club. The Rennes players buried their heads in the grass, the city of Toulouse partied all night. Toulouse finish the season in 3rd on 58 points, with Rennes, Lens, Bordeaux, and Sochaux all tied on 57. Who said French club football couldn't be exciting, sometimes?
In summary, Champions League spots go to Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse (whose only European claim to fame so far had been to knock-out Diego Maradona's Napoli on penalties in an early round of the UEFA cup in 1986). Nantes, Troyes and Sedan will play next season in Ligue 2. They will be replaced in the top flight by Metz, Caen and Racing Club de Strasbourg, who made it in spite of their manager being in charge for his very first season in the business. You may want to look out, next year, for the club from Alsace and this young, enthusiastic, attack-minded coach by the name of Jean-Pierre Papin.