Lean spell blunts Lyon's claws

PARIS - A lean spell, a dull playing style and a handful of hungry rivals breathing hard down their necks suggest Olympique Lyon's long reign at the top of French soccer might be about to end.

Lyon still lead Ligue 1 a match from the winter break but they have gone four games without victory, picking up just two points along the way.

The measure of all things in France for years, Lyon are now under threat from Olympique Marseille, Girondins Bordeaux and Paris St Germain, all of them three points back, and face a struggle to win an eighth consecutive title.

"Lyon are still there but maybe this season another club will be the champions," Olympique Marseille forward Hatem Ben Arfa, who was formed at Lyon, told reporters after his side held the champions to a goalless draw in a dismal clash on Sunday.

Not since the season of the first of their seven titles in 2002 had Lyon gone more than three matches without a win.

With 35 points from 18 games, they have picked an average 1.9 points per match making them the most inefficient leaders among the top leagues in Europe, a long way from Barcelona and Inter Milan, who average 2.5 and 2.4 points respectively.

In previous years, Lyon had collected much more points at this stage, notably two years ago when they reached the halfway stage with 50 points from a maximum 57.

They have some excuses, notably a long injury list featuring defenders Francois Clerc, Anthony Reveillere, Mathieu Bodmer and John Mensah.

Coach Claude Puel, however, faces criticism for his cautious tactics. Once famous for their exciting game, Lyon have become less fun to watch under the guidance of a man who epitomised the workaholic holding midfielder in his playing days.


Another problem is that their new signings, notably midfielders Ederson, Miralem Pjanic and Jean Makoun, have failed to live up to high expectations for various reasons.

Lyon still have special players in Brazilian midfield artist Juninho and France marksman Karim Benzema but depend on the pair so much that they look ordinary when the two are injured, suspended or rested by Puel.

"We have to be careful," said Benzema. "We have three teams right behind us who would love to see us stumble. That's good news to fans. It should make the league exciting to follow."

More good news to those tired of Lyon's supremacy is that the club, desperate to make an impact in Europe at last after never advancing past the quarter-finals of the Champions League, have other things to worry about than just another league crown.

"Lyon are still extremely well organised, even if they have dropped more points than expected, and they will be stronger after the winter break," Marseille coach Eric Gerets told reporters.

"However, if we keep improving, we will be strong enough to fight for the title until the very end," he added.

While many see Marseille and Bordeaux as the sides most likely to challenge Lyon for the title, Paris St Germain, recovering after narrowly escaping relegation last season, also stand a chance.

"The team play with more confidence and our situation is a lot more comfortable now," said PSG coach Paul Le Guen, whose