Pitchside Europe

Streamlined Lyon roll with the punches

Pitchside Europe

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At any other time in the last three or four years, the sight of Marseille and Lyon leading the way in Ligue 1 would have seemed less than remarkable, but this season was supposed to be different.

Both clubs are in transition, and with Lille and Montpellier tipped to mount the strongest challenges to the behemoth that is Paris Saint-Germain, the two Olympiques were expected to find themselves scrapping over the leftovers alongside the other also-rans.

Although the season is young, both teams are proving that it is possible to be competitive at the top of the table without spending the equivalent of a small country's GDP, and while Marseille's run of six straight wins has attracted plenty of attention, Lyon's performances have been almost as unexpected.

Lyon's fourth-place finish last season meant the club failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 2000, and although success in the Coupe de France ended a four-year trophy drought, it marked a setback of seismic proportions for a club aiming to re-establish themselves as the pre-eminent football power in the country.

This is an era of shifting priorities for Lyon, however, and Rémi Garde was rewarded for his efforts in his first season as coach with a new two-year contract. Garde could not be held responsible for the rot that had set in under his predecessor, Claude Puel, and he had been appointed with more than one eye on the future.

By the admission of president Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon tried to "raise the bar very high" during Puel's time in the dug-out, taking risks with expensive signings like Yoann Gourcuff, Lisandro López and Michel Bastos in the pursuit of Champions League success, only to fall short. Lyon might have reached the last four in 2010 but their quarter-final victims that season were struggling domestic rivals Bordeaux, and Puel's team did not boast the same quality as the side that reached successive quarter-finals in 2005 and 2006 under Paul Le Guen and Gérard Houllier.

A bloated payroll, allied to the failure to qualify for the Champions League and diminishing income from television rights, meant that Lyon had no choice but to slash their wage bill in the summer. Aulas sounded the alarm, declaring that it was time for the club's "pharaohs" and "changing-room dinosaurs" to move on, and by the time the transfer window closed earlier this month, Hugo Lloris, Aly Cissokho, Kim Källström, Ederson, John Mensah and club captain Cris — among others — had all departed.

As in the summer of 2011, Lyon spent their money cautiously and none of their new signings — Milan Biševac, Fabián Monzón, Steed Malbranque and Arnold Mvuemba — required the kind of elaborately stage-managed public unveiling that greeted Gourcuff's arrival from Bordeaux in 2010.

Elsewhere, Garde has been obliged to plug gaps in his team with the resources already at his disposal. Rémy Vercoutre has replaced Lloris in goal after 10 long years as an understudy, while youth-team graduate Clément Grenier is blossoming in the absence of the injured Gourcuff.

On the pitch, Lyon's players have taken their cue from the management's efforts to make the best of challenging circumstances. Lyon average a greater share of possession in their matches — 61.5 percent — than any of their rivals, but they have ridden their luck at times, and Sunday's 1-1 draw at Lille was a case in point.

Lille dominated after taking the lead in the seventh minute but Lyon doggedly weathered the storm and snatched a draw with 10 minutes remaining, Lisandro belatedly springing to life and rifling a swerving shot into the bottom-left corner from 30 yards. It was the visitors' second attempt on target.

OL are now second in the table and unbeaten in eight matches - a run that began with a penalty shoot-out victory over Montpellier in the Trophée des Champions in New York. Biševac and Dejan Lovren have the makings of a well-balanced centre-back partnership and although Lyon continue to concede sloppy goals, they are nowhere near as porous as in 2011-12, when they kept just five clean sheets in Ligue 1 all season.

As well as trying to get back into the top three, Lyon seem determined to make their mark in the Europa League, with Garde having fielded a strong team in Thursday's 2-1 win over Sparta Prague. They might not be able to welcome Real Madrid or Manchester United to Stade Gerland anymore, but Lyon's route to recovery is gradually taking form.

Based in Paris and working for Agence France-Presse, Tom Williams will be blogging for us on all matters Ligue 1 throughout the season.

Follow @tomwfootball

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