Several French teams struggle in early days of Champions League
Only one French side has ever won the Champions League title
Marseille, the lone team to win it, had won only one of five league matches
Lyon, with four World Cup players, is off to its worst start in five seasons
It's still something of a surprise that only one French side has ever won the European Cup or, as it has been known since 1992, the Champions League -- especially since a Frenchman, L'Equipe newspaper editor Gabriel Hanot, helped set up the competition's first edition in 1955, the final of which Stade de Reims lost 4-3 to Real Madrid.
That sole victor was Marseille in 1993 and its captain in the final against AC Milan was Didier Deschamps. Last season, Deschamps, a former World Cup winner with France, coached Marseille to the league title in his first season in charge and then rejected an approach from Liverpool, preferring to guide "the club of my heart", as he put it, back into the Champions League.
Deschamps could now be forgiven for having second thoughts: before this weekend's match against bottom club Arles-Avignon, Marseille had won only one of their five league matches and on Wednesday it slumped to a shock 1-0 loss at home to Spartak Moscow in its opening group match.
If last season's side was a throwback to the tough-tackling team that Deschamps was part of in 1993 -- giant centre-backs Souleymane Diawara and Stephane M'Bia are reminiscent of Basile Boli and Carlos Mozer, while Gabriel Heinze added extra experience -- this week's was a poor imitation. It was na´ve in chasing a winner late on, only to be caught by a breakaway goal from an unlucky deflection off defender Cesar Azpilicueta. Spartak won the game without even registering one shot on target.
"We were so unlucky, I'm still asking myself how we lost that," midfielder Mathieu Valbuena told the press after the game while team-mate Benoit Cheyrou added: "I thought we played well but whereas we had lots of luck at the end of last season, at the moment it's completely the opposite."
Deschamps was criticised for not bringing on substitute Andre-Pierre Gignac, who struck a shot against the inside of the post in the last minute, sooner.
"This is like a nightmare," the coach said.
Gignac only joined Marseille after the club could not find agreement with Sevilla to sign Brazil forward Luis Fabiano. "I was happy to come to a big club like Marseille, but Sevilla were not happy with the fee," Fabiano told L'Equipe this week. Sevilla had demanded €18m but Marseille went no further than €12m. That saga was one of many that disrupted Marseille's summer.
Winger Hatem Ben Arfa even went on strike after Marseille had told him to find a new club, then changed its mind after accepting a €8m bid for 30-year-old captain Mamadou Niang from Fenerbahce. (Niang's on-pitch movement, incidentally, was greatly missed against Spartak.) Sports director Jose Anigo sanctioned the signing of Gignac, and Loic Remy from Nice, for a combined €30m, amid rumours of disagreements and increasing tension with Deschamps.
Marseille is by no means out of contention in Group F yet, though it will now have to take something from the trip to Moscow on Matchday Five. Next up is a visit to the imperious Chelsea, one of Deschamps's former clubs, where, despite the absence of the suspended Didier Drogba, the visitors would do well to get a point.
Its supposed biggest rivals in Ligue 1, Lyon, was the only French team to win on Matchday One, beating ten-man Schalke 1-0, but has its own problems to cope with. One win from its five league games is its worst start to a season since 1995 and Claude Puel, the first Lyon coach in eight seasons who failed to win the league in 2009 (and last season) is already the subject of fans' protests.
Four Lyon players were part of France's World Cup shambles and have struggled to shake off its effects. Yoann Gourcuff, its big-name summer signing from Bordeaux, walked out of an interview with broadcaster TF1 last week when asked about his relationship with Franck Ribery while Jeremy Toulalan has been mentally scarred by his experience in South Africa, and was so afraid of fans' reaction that he only left his house to go to the supermarket: "Sometimes I ate there too but only if I had a corner table and was facing the wall with my head down," he told France Football.
Last season's Player of the Year, Lisandro Lopez, was recovering from an ankle injury when he was called back from Argentina to travel with Lyon for a pre-season tournament in London. He is reported to still be upset about that. Lyon's issues with injuries also led them to fire fitness coach Vincent Espie. "There are deep-lying reasons that explain Lyon's stagnation but Puel's transition period is over and now he must face his destiny," read an editorial in So Foot magazine. "But they still leave gaping holes on the pitch and the tactics are not quite there yet -- that's why the coming season will be painful."
There is less pressure on France's third Champions League representative, Auxerre, back in the competition for the first time since 2002, but drawn in the toughest of groups alongside Real Madrid, AC Milan and Ajax. Still, it gave Milan a fright at the San Siro, hitting the crossbar and missing a chance on the counter before Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose annual salary is more than Auxerre's yearly budget, scored twice. Auxerre is well-organized but lacks experience and relies heavily on goal-poacher extraordinaire Ireneusz Jelen for goals. The team, currently hovering just above the relegation zone in Ligue 1, will be happy to finish third in the group and drop down into the Europa League.
It is of course early days in the season, and a run of wins will quickly push any of these teams up the Ligue 1 table. Marseille and Lyon are still the teams to beat for the title but their early problems have at least given hope to outsiders like Lille and Rennes. As for the Champions League, a repeat of last season's performance -- with two French teams in the last eight and one in the last four -- already seems too much to ask.
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