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Sep 5, 2012

Restructuring Lyon shuffle their pack

Team photo shoots tend to be anodyne affairs, where players feeling twitchy and conspicuous in full battle regalia but no shin-pads tease and lark to pass the inevitable boredom. Yet for once, there was genuine interest as Olympique Lyon did the honours for 2012-13 last Wednesday, opposite their Stade Gerland home at the Palais des Sports.

As a regular venue for ATP tennis events, the Palais is often a decent venue for star-spotting, and there was a fair bit of rubbernecking going on at the shoot. With club president Jean-Michel Aulas admitting between photos that almost everyone in his squad was potentially for sale (save the "untransferable" Lisandro Lopez), there was real intrigue among the assembled media to see what the line-up would be - and for how long the team picture would continue to give an accurate representation of the squad.

Hugo Lloris, Cris, Michel Bastos and Bafetimbi Gomis were all there. The injured Yoann Gourcuff was not, as he was convalescing in the south of France - though his image will be digitally added to the finished version. Who knows, but maybe Gourcuff's head will end up on the shoulders of Cris, after the long-serving defender completed a move to Turkish champions Galatasaray on Monday night. By then, Gourcuff's good friend Lloris had already made his exit, after protracted negotiations with Tottenham finally bore fruit on the Premier League's transfer deadline day.

It says something for the decay of Lyon's business model that it's come to this. The club has leapt light years forward since Aulas took over a provincial yo-yo club 25 years ago, and until relatively recently had a structure which was the envy of many a less prudent club. Aulas led Lyon to unprecedented sporting success, incorporating a French record seven successive league titles between 2002 and 2008. All the way the club went from strength to strength as Lyon bought low and sold high, turning huge profits on players including Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra.

Yet the ultra-ambitious Aulas became Icarus, with the club's problems beginning with a public float in 2007. The free capital was invested in big signings, with coach Claude Puel allowed to spend a staggering €155m (£122.5m) on players in his three years in charge from 2008. Even before Puel arrived, big figures were blown on expensive failures such as Kader Keita and Ederson.

Since ex-Arsenal player Remi Garde became head coach last year, retrenchment has been the watchword, with Garde just the man to promote players from the club's academy, having been academy director before taking on the first team. It has been a painful process, even if Garde guided Lyon to a first trophy in four years; the French Cup, in April.

Aulas may have readjusted, but he has shifted the blame for recent failings elsewhere. In July he blasted the "pharaohs and dinosaurs" of the Lyon dressing room, making particularly pointed (and personal) reference to Cris, Kim Kallstrom, Aly Cissokho and Bastos. While all of the quartet have had their ups and downs at the Gerland, Aulas' broadside ignored who had chosen to grant these players such handsome wages in the first place. In the case of Cris, he had earned raises by spearheading the team's successes before age and injuries took their toll on his physical condition. "I wanted to finish my career at Lyon," the Brazilian defender admitted this week.

It also showed Aulas' hand - the president was desperate to slash his wage bill, and was pushing his biggest earners towards the exit door. Kallstrom and Cissokho were shipped off to Spartak Moscow and Valencia respectively for cut-price fees. There were attempts to sell Gomis to Rubin Kazan, Fenerbahce and Fulham, while Bastos came close to joining Al-Ain.

In such a climate, Lyon's position in second place in the table is a near miracle. The vilified Bastos is perhaps the best example of the carry on regardless spirit that has carried them through. Deeply hurt by Aulas questioning his professionalism, he has responded in admirable style, coming on as substitute to score spectacular game-changing goals against Troyes and Evian; the first an acrobatic overhead kick, the second a trademark rocket of a free-kick. On Saturday, given a first start of the campaign against Valenciennes, Bastos again got Lyon up and running with a smart finish from a tight angle.

Wearing as the uncertainty of recent weeks has been, it could be the equilibrium that the French game needs in the face of Paris Saint-Germain's inexorable spending. If Qatar Sports Investment had arrived five years ago, Lyon might have ruined themselves in an attempt to keep pace. Now, that isn't an option.

A few prudent signings - proven Ligue 1 performers including Milan Bisevac, Fabian Monzon and Arnold Mveumba - have given them a solid base. Steed Malbranque has even returned to the club after a decade away, and after a year's inactivity after a short, ill-fated spell at St Etienne. The former Sunderland and Tottenham man was man-of-the-match against Valenciennes on Saturday. More by accident than design, Lyon have chanced on an interesting blend.

Winners and losers of the Ligue 1 window

Winners: Paris Saint-Germain's mega signings come with mega wages - which is a huge boost for the French taxman. Despite president Francois Hollande's protests at Zlatan Ibrahimovic's "indecent" salary, there is no indication that the government will register their protest by refusing PSG's tax contribution, which amounts to €12.4m (£9.8m) for Ibrahimovic alone. All PSG's stars have negotiated net wage deals, so if Hollande's proposal to increase tax paid on annual earnings of over €1m is passed, the capital club's bill will rocket.

Losers: In terms of their size and stature, Lyon and Marseille should be the two most obvious challengers to PSG in this season's campaign. Yet both are suffering the hangover from years of reckless spending, and had to make significant cuts to their squad this summer. Seeing the two forced to cede Hugo Lloris to Tottenham and Cesar Azpilcueta to Chelsea respectively at minimal profits was as eloquent an indication to the two giants' current plight as you could wish for.

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