PARIS, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Olympique Lyon's decision put their faith in youth has paid dividends as they sit top of Ligue 1 heading into their regional derby against arch-rivals St Etienne on Sunday.
The seven-times French champions, who had to part ways with several experienced players in the off-season to curb a rampant deficit, have successfully brought through a string of academy graduates.
Five players have made their league debuts in recent weeks, including 18-year-old striker Yassine Benzia, who scored his first goal to earn Lyon a 1-1 draw at Prague in the Europa League last month.
The home-grown players, including 20-year-old forward Rachid Ghezzal, 23-year-old holding midfielder Maxime Gonalons and 21-year-old playmaker Clement Grenier, have been key in Lyon's strong start to the season.
Grenier has done better in ten games this season than he did in the whole of the last campaign with one goal and three assists.
"I am not surprised that they have all succeeded. I have watched them grow, from the academy to the reserve squad and now they play games that matter," goalkeeper Remy Vercoutre, who joined Lyon in 2002, told Reuters.
"They all play for France's youth teams. So you can regard them as examples. And it is not luck that they play here, because luck is not enough to get you a contract at Lyon."
The young players are eager to prove their worth against their local rivals.
"When you come from the academy, you want to show that you know how to play and how to win these kind of derbies," centre back Samuel Umtiti told reporters.
"Our determination will be boosted because we want to show that we have Lyon in our soul. We want to show that Lyon are dominant and that the best young players come from here," added the 19-year-old who is expected to start a sixth consecutive game.
There is more than an old rivalry and regional bragging rights at stake. Leaders Lyon have 31 points from 15 games while St Etienne, who have not beaten Lyon on their home pitch since 1994, are third, five points behind.
"It is not the leader facing the third-placed team. It is St Etienne hosting Lyon," midfielder Josuha Guilavogui said.
Olympique Marseille, second on 29 points, could go top if they defeat mid-table Lorient at home earlier on Sunday.
Marseille will be without midfielder Benoit Cheyrou, who has been ruled out for up to three weeks with a thigh problem, but will hope Joey Barton can repeat his match-winning form of last weekend.
The combative English midfielder was named man of the match by the fans after he set up both goals in their 2-1 victory at Stade Brest.
Fourth-placed Paris St Germain, who finished top of their Champions League group after beating Porto 2-1 on Tuesday, host Evian Thonon Gaillard on Saturday. PSG have lost three of their last five league games and are five points behind Lyon.
"If we show the same attitude that we had in the (Porto) game, we could recover quickly," coach Carlo Ancelotti said. (Writing by Gregory Blachier; editing by Toby Davis)