On a weekend when the other teams in the mix for the European places stumbled – draws for Monaco and Marseille, a defeat for Nice – Sunday night fixture looked like an appealing one, with Lyon traveling to Rennes. It was no shock that the match would feature so much attacking play but it was a surprise that nearly 90% of it came from Rennes. They ran out convincing 4-1 winners to move up to fifth in the table, just a point behind Nice and Marseille.
The result was something approaching a shock given Lyon’s impressive recent form and the fact that Rennes were missing a handful of important players. The winning margin could have been higher but for a world-class display from Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes.
Both sides had played in Europe during the week. Lyon continued their perfect start to their Europa League campaign, sealing a place in the knockout stages with a 3-0 win over Sparta Prague, an important result on the back of their gritty victory against Lens last weekend. Rennes were victorious in the Europa Conference League, beating Mura 1-0 to stay above Spurs and Vitesse Arnhem in their group.
Despite the importance of their European campaigns, both managers rotated heavily on Thursday, clearly viewing their meeting in the league as crucial, not only in terms of facing a direct competitor for the top places, but also as an ideal opportunity to enter the international break with some momentum. Lyon seemed to have recovered from what was a traumatic loss to Nice in mid-October by beating Lens; while Rennes were unbeaten in nine across all competitions, having handed PSG their sole league defeat of the campaign in that stretch.
Rennes invested heavily in the summer, bringing in Loïc Badé, Kamaldeen Sulemana, Gaëtan Laborde, Baptiste Santamaria and Lovro Majer. Only PSG spent more money on players. While the new arrivals at Rennes were somewhat offset financially by the £34m sale of Eduardo Camavinga to Real Madrid, they lost three league matches in a row after the teenager’s move was confirmed.
Bruno Génésio was struggling to settle on a consistent tactical approach, with injuries also playing a part in their slow start. Jérémy Doku, such an electric presence over the summer with Belgium, was injured at the same time Camavinga departed, leaving the manager without two players who had been expected to be integral to the team’s success this season. Given the club’s outlay of nearly €90m, there were concerns about the suitability of Génésio to be in charge of such an expensively assembled squad – even though he had only been appointed in March to replace Julien Stéphan.
Rennes sunk as low as 16th after that third loss – a 2-0 defeat to Marseille – in mid-September. But their riposte was as emphatic as one could expect, thrashing Clermont, who had started the season impressively, 6-0. It was a nice result, but their real test would come the following weekend against PSG. They turned out one of the results of the season to date, beating the leaders 2-0.
Génésio lined his side up in a 4-4-2 in that match, with Martin Terrier and Laborde leading the line as he bravely left both Santamaria and Badé on the bench. Veteran Jonas Martin started instead of the former Angers man; and the young academy product, Warmed Omari, was chosen to partner Nayef Aguerd ahead of Badé, who had been signed from Lens in the summer for €20m. Génésio’s faith in these two players was intriguing – as was his confidence in Flavien Tait, who had been in and out the team under Stéphan.
There was no arguing with the results. After beating PSG, Rennes won 3-0 at Metz, beat Strasbourg 1-0 at home and drew 2-2 at Troyes. Lyon, though, have been playing with plenty of verve under Peter Bosz and looked likely to challenge Rennes’ unbeaten run.
Génésio, true to his tinkering reputation, lined up his team in a 4-3-3. Rennes were without the injured Martin – Santamaria started at the base of midfield – and Sulemana was dropped as well. In the Ghanaian’s place, a first league start was given to Majer, and he was astounding. Even though Rennes had looked doggedly solid over the previous two months, they had often seemed to lack much in the way of inventiveness. Even Tait and Sulemana, despite their abilities, were hardly the type of players to set a match alight with creative brilliance.
Majer, playing as the most advanced of a midfield three, was tremendous throughout. The Croatian linked well with Terrier and Laborde, who scored his eighth goal of the campaign – making him the top scorer in Ligue 1 so far this season. Lopes had to produce a highlight reel of saves to keep the match scoreless until Laborde finally broke Lyon’s resistance on the stroke of half-time. The onslaught continued after the interval, with Adrien Truffert hitting a brace off the bench and Hamari Traoré scoring a rare goal. Despite their absences, and the surprising decision to drop Sulemana and change systems, Rennes were imperious.
Génésio will no doubt continue to tinker, and one result does not a season make – even when taken in concert with their win over PSG. But his team’s performances are only likely to improve as Majer returns to full fitness and Doku rejoins the fold. It’s the kind of form that should give Lens, Marseille and Nice food for thought. If they assumed the battle to qualify for the Champions League was becoming a three-horse race, they will have to think again.
Lens continue to impress. They thumped Troyes 4-0 on Friday. Laurent Batlles’ promoted side have not been up to much this season, but the result was important one for Lens after their defeat to Lyon last weekend. It also gave Jonathan Clauss the chance to bolster his argument for a spot in the France team – especially following Léo Dubois’ poor showing – with two assists and a goal. No other player in the league has as many assists this season. The right-back is not the most solid defender but he is surely worth a look, even at 29.
St Étienne have finally picked up their first win of the season, beating Clermont 3-2 thanks to a pair of stoppage time goals. They are now off the bottom of the table. With winnable matches against Troyes and Brest to come after the international break, they could move out of the relegation zone soon, something that seemed nigh-on unthinkable a month ago.
Finally, Montpellier made it three wins from four by beating Nice in one of the weekend’s surprise results. The visitors were missing Téji Savanier and long-terms absentees Thuler and Pedro Mendes in defence – and were perhaps lucky not to concede when Mario Lemina hit the crossbar in the second half – but a goal from Florent Mollet was enough to give them a 1-0 win. Montpellier are looking increasingly cohesive, a swashbuckling counter-attacking side in the mould of manager Olivier Dall’Oglio’s former team, Brest.