French leader Lyon faces test at Saint-Etienne

JEROME PUGMIRE AP Sports Writer Published:

PARIS (AP) -- While Paris Saint-Germain's attempt to buy glory by signing big names has failed so far, Lyon has surged to the top of the French league despite spending hardly any money and by keeping faith in a novice coach.

PSG may boast Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is among the world's best strikers, and Carlo Ancelotti, a highly experienced coach with trophy success in Italy and England, but the team is five points behind Lyon.

This weekend, the leaders travel to local rival Saint-Etienne and PSG hosts struggling Evian.

"Every night when I go to sleep I dream of the title, and I hope my players do the same," Lyon coach Remi Garde, who started his playing career as a center half with Lyon 25 years ago, told sports daily L'Equipe on Thursday. "Normally, PSG should be way out in front."

Garde's best signing -- midfielder Steed Malbranque -- cost nothing and the club's best decision was not selling Bafetimbi Gomis to Fenerbahce, even though the Turkish club was offering €13 million ($17 million) during the offseason.

Gomis has scored 14 goals in all competitions this season -- one less than Ibrahimovic -- and his goals have helped Lyon move three points clear of second-place Marseille, which hosts Lorient on Sunday.

While PSG has spent more than €160 million ($209 million) in the offseason on new players -- Brazil center half Thiago Silva and Ibrahimovic both joined from AC Milan -- Lyon's smart move was giving more opportunity to young players like midfielder Clement Grenier and striker Alexandre Lacazette, and taking a chance on Malbranque, the former Fulham and Tottenham midielder.

It was Malbranque himself who approached the club where he started out his career after terminating his Saint-Etienne contract and initially retiring. Lyon gave Malbranque a trial -- at the age of 32 -- and he is now playing some of the best football of his career, creating goals for Gomis and Lisandro Lopez and winning the admiration of teammates and fans.

Lyon's unity, its development of youth players and willingness to take a chance on older ones like Malbranque, is the polar opposite of the ruthless, money-driven drive for success at PSG.

"There's been a good team spirit since the start the season," Grenier said.

That's far from being the case at PSG.

Although Ibrahimovic has been an undoubted success in terms of goals, an increasing number of reports in the past two weeks have told of other players becoming exasperated with his tendency to constantly demand the ball and hog the limelight. Even the fans are starting to get on his back, and he was jeered during the match against FC Porto on Tuesday for trying an extravagant shot rather than passing to the unmarked Jeremy Menez.

Reports of rifts between French players and the Italians in the squad added further fuel to the growing tensions at PSG this week.

"It's a new dressing room, there are no problems in particular," Ancelotti said. "I think that when you are trying to build a team with new players, you have to take the necessary time to build good relations."

While Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas took a gamble on promoting Garde from the youth team last season, PSG fired Antoine Kombouare just before last year's winter break -- even though he was at the top of the league -- and recruited the highly-regarded Ancelotti to oversee the hoped-for transformation into a European powerhouse.

This has fallen rather flat, with PSG in fourth place after losing three of its past five league games, and reports surfacing on Monday that Ancelotti was close to losing his job.

The 2-1 win over Porto ensured PSG finished first in its group, and took some of the pressure off Ancelotti. He said that the players will find their form again in the league, starting with a win against Evian, which is just above the relegation zone.

"Maybe the players were more focused on the Champions League, but we will have to change that," Ancelotti said. "We have time to focus on the league now. We're five points behind Lyon and that's not good, but we have time to catch up."

A trip to Lyon used to hold fear for Saint-Etienne, but after winning 2-1 at PSG in the league a month ago and knocking PSG out of the League Cup last week, coach Christophe Galtier is ready to challenge Lyon.

"We will play the derby to win. We will attack," Galtier said. "The squad is more competitive (than before)."

Also Saturday, it's: Montpellier vs. Ajaccio; Nancy vs. Valenciennes; Rennes vs. Brest; Sochaux vs. Lille; and Troyes vs. Nice.

Reims faces Bordeaux in Sunday's other game, while Toulouse faces Bastia in Friday's match.