A.S.S.E Saint Etienne
Stade Rennais FC
Stade de France, Paris
April 20th, 2013, 00:30 IST
Saint Etienne’s last major trophy: 1981 Ligue 1. That is 32 years without a trophy. Rennes’ last major trophy: 1971 Coupe de France (FA Cup equivalent); that is 42 years without a trophy. As trophy droughts go, what these two teams are suffering is a famine. Unfortunately, in cup competitions there can only be one winner. So at the end of this Coupe de la Ligue final between Saint Etienne and Rennes, one team is going to experience the ecstasy of ending a prolonged period of drought. For the other, the pain will continue for one more year at least.
The Coupe de la Ligue final puts the spotlight on the lesser known teams of Ligue1. With PSG hogging the headlines because of their record spending ways, their exploits in the Champions League and the league, and, not to forget, David Beckham, sometimes it feels as if the other clubs in the France are a bit of a sideshow. But both Saint Etienne and Rennes are not lightweights if you discount the budget and wages at their disposal. True, they do not belong to the elite of French football but they are historically celebrated clubs.
Saint Etienne: Onwards and upwards
Saint Etienne are the most successful club in French football with 10 Ligue 1 titles and 6 Coupe de France (FA Cup) wins. But their last shot at glory came in the 1982 Coupe de France final. To say that they would be desperate to end the barren run would be an understatement. And ever since Christopher Galtier took over as manager in December, 2009, they’ve been on an upward surge with the club’s youth policy finally seemingly paying dividends.
Galtier has built an enterprising side comprising the youthful exuberance of exciting talents like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Yohan Mollo and Kurt Zouma who are some of the best performers in Ligue 1 this year. Add to that the experience of the likes of captain Loic Perrin, goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier, striker Brandao and midfielder Jeremy Clement, Saint Etienne are a perfect blend of youth and experience. After a poor run of form in December when they failed to win in 5 games- losing 4 games in the process- they’ve hit a rich vein of form that has seen them mount a stiff challenge for a spot in the Champions League next season.
They are in 4th place in the league on 54 points, just 2 points adrift of bitter rivals Lyon. After spending majority of the last 3 decades under Lyon’s shadow, how they would like to get one over their arch-rivals? Currently, they are one of the form teams of Europe. Their 17 game unbeaten run was brought to an abrupt halt on Tuesday night by an unfancied Lorient side in the Coupe de France quarter finals. Despite the blip, they must be in a confident mood having suffered only one loss in 2013. If they wanted some extra confidence heading into the final, they needn’t look further than their opponent’s woes.
Rennes: In a negative spiral
2013 has been a year to forget for Rennes and their manager Frederic Antonetti. In essence, they are following the same path as Saint Etienne albeit in the opposite direction. Without a win in the last 8 games in the league and currently on a 4 game losing streak, their last win came on the 10th of February- a 2-0 win at home against Toulouse. At the end of January, a 2-2 win against Marseille took them to 4th place in the table and they looked like genuine contenders for a Champions League place. They are currently in 10th place having picked up 6 points out of a possible 30.
The aforementioned Marseille game is of significance to Rennes’ season. In that game, a last minute equalizer by Romain Alessandirini- Rennes’ best performer with 10 goals and one of Ligue1’s upcoming stars- salvaged them a point. Three weeks later he sustained a serious knee injury against Lille that ruled him out for the season. Since then things have gone downhill for the Brittany side. With the league campaign petering out, Rennes know that this final is their only opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage. “Our whole season is riding on Saturday’s game”, said Julien Feret. To be frank, transfer of Yaan M’Villa to Rubin Kazan had left a giant sized hole to fill in midfield; the injury to Alessandrini further exacerbated their problems.
But Rennes are no small fish. Since the wealthy Pinault family took over in 1998 they’ve finished in the top half of the table in every season. The owners are not averse to spending and have made significant investments to the team over the past few years. Antonetti, with his contract running out at the end of the season, is no doubt under pressure. A rotund, spiky presence on the touchline, Antonetti has a style of his own. He openly berates his players in press conferences and during the game; in the lead up to this game called his players “losers”. Whether this is a motivational tactic or not remains to be seen.
Rennes, for their part, perform the role of tragicomic losers to perfection. Not for nothing are they labelled “favourite losers”. In their recent attempts to win silverware, they’ve fallen flat on their faces without anyone tripping them. In the 2009 Coupe de France final they went into the game as overwhelming favourites against second division EA Guingamp. They took the lead in the second half only to concede 2 goals in the space of 10 minutes. Last season they crashed out at the semi-final stage against amateur club US Quevilly- a result that garnered Quevilly worldwide recognition.
But cup finals rarely follow the form book and with talents like Benoit Costil, Alou Diarra, Melvut Erding and Jonathan Pitropia at their disposal, Rennes may yet spring an upset.
Progress to the final
The top sides enter the 3rd round of the competition (round of 32). Saint Etienne were away to Lorient and went behind 1-0 in the first half to a Giles Sunu goal. Brandao equalizerd for the Les Vertes in the 54th minute and the score stayed 1-1 at the end of second half. A penalty shoot-out ensued in which the home side missed their first 3 penalties while the visitors converted all three. Rennes escaped with a 3-2 win against Nancy at home after they went 1-0 down in the 14th minute.
The round of 16 was a fairly easy passage for both the teams: Rennes eased to a 1-0 win over Ligue2 side Arles Avignon while Saint Etienne won 3-0 at Sochaux.
Saint Etienne were again involved in a dramatic penalty shootout in the Quarterfinals even as Rennes won 2-1 at home against Troyes with Roman Alessandrini scoring a 89th minute winner. The match between Saint Etienne and PSG went into a penalty shootout as both teams failed to score in the 90 minutes. Saint Etienne scored from all their spot kicks while Thiago Silva’s failed kick meant the underdogs won 5-3.
In the semi-finals, Rennes were up against Montpellier at home while Saint Etienne hosted Lille. Rennes won comfortably as goals at the start of each half gave them a 2-0 win. Saint Etienne’s game, on the other hand, was the match of the tournament. After ending 0-0 at the end of 120 minutes, a penalty shootout ensued. The home side began first and Yohan Mollo missed with their second penalty. Lille converted all their penalties and after Aubemeyang made it 4-4 with the home side’s 5th and final kick, Florent Blamont had the chance to seal a final place for Lille. He missed and a sudden death ensued. With the score line at 7-6 in favour of the home side, Idrissa Gueye stepped up for Lille and missed to send Saint Etienne to the finals.
Having come through so many tough games, one would expect the Les Verts to be battle hardened and ready for the final.
Player to watch out for
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: With 17 goals- and 13 assists-in the league the Gabon striker is only behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the top goal scorers chart of Ligue1. With pace to burn and an ability to get past defenders, his goal scoring exploits have made top clubs like Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham ,PSG take notice. Capable of playing on the left, right or as a central striker he has been Saint Etienne’s go-to man in the league. While there is speculation that he will leave at the end of this season, a Champions League spot and a cup winner’s medal might persuade him to stay longer at Saint Etienne.
Saint Etienne (4-3-3) : Stephane Ruffier; Francois Clerc, Kurt Zouma, Loic Perrin(captain), Jonathan Brison; Fabien Lemione, Joshua Guilavogui, Renaud Cohade; Aubameyang, Brandao, Yohan Mollo
Rennes (4-2-3-1) : Benoit Costil; Romain Danzé(c), John Boye, Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik, Chris Mavinga; Vincent Pajot, Makoun; Johan Pitropia, Julien Feret, Sadio Diallo; Melvut Erding
Prediction: 2-0 to Saint Etienne. Despite the mid-week blip, their attacking prowess may prove too hot to handle for the beleaguered Rennes defence.
Antonetti (Rennes Manager): “We are in a difficult situation. Our opponents are the favourites. Given the situation, we are not the underdogs; we are the dead losers of that final.
“I’m not the only one who says that, just read the papers. But we’ll give everything in this game.”
Pierre Aubameyang (Saint Etienne): “This is an untimely defeat. But I do not think it is going to affect us for Saturday’s final.” —on the Coupe de France quarter final defeat to Lorient.
Written by Guest Author Chaitanya Lakkapragada
Follow the author on Twitter: @chaitugooner