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Sep 27, 2005

The power of 9

'Oh, la vache! What a save!'

The cluster of sweaty sports hacks swarmed around the TV monitor grew in size and voice as Grégory Coupet pulled off stop after astonishing stop.

The men at l'Équipe knew they were seeing something era-defining as shots rained in on the Lyon goal and Coupet, like cling film on a toilet seat, repelled everything that came his way. In injury time he yet again denied Claudiu Keserü and Mauro Cetto with feline reflexes and wrists of steel.

The final whistle blew to confirm Lyon's 1-0 win at Nantes, and the unthinkable became a reality: 'It's time to dust off the '9'.'

After every league match, daily sports newspaper l'Équipe awards a mark out of ten for each player. Except it isn't really out of ten. For all its qualities, l'Équipe possesses a pseudo-intellectual streak that causes philosophy to make awkward intrusions into football.

Consequently, the extremes of the scale are less numbers than concepts. Ten out of ten represents a state of sporting perfection that can never be attained by mortals, or even Zinédine Zidane.

A ten cannot be awarded, for what would happen if another player produces a better performance? Generations of pedantic points-giving would be rendered irrelevant at a stroke.

It is no place for 110% hyperbole so beloved in the rest of the sporting world. A hat-trick is normally good enough for an 8, while two goals, four assists and a half-time rendition of 'Je Ne Regrette Rien' might be worth 8.5.

So when Coupet opened his morning paper to see a number nine by his name, he knew John Carew wasn't joking when he interrupted his post-match interviews, yelling (in English): 'He's the best goalkeeper in the world!'

'Hold-up' was the word unanimously chosen to describe Sunday's game at Nantes' La Beaujoire stadium.

Lyon were battered throughout, yet somehow bundled three points into the boot of Gérard Houllier's Renault Clio as the incongruously-named Brazilian, Fred, headed home the champions' only chance of note. In addition to saving his team-mates' hides, Coupet also delivered the half-time team talk.

'At the break I asked my team-mates whether their minds were already in Rosenborg (Wednesday's Champions League destination),' said Coupet.

'We were very lucky to reach half-time at 0-0. We have shown more commitment in training than tonight.' Fred's winner aside, Lyon saved their enthusiasm until after the match, when the goalkeeper received a standing ovation and chants of 'Coupet! Coupet!'

Such touching camaraderie aside, the result is bad news for the league, with Lyon already four points clear in their search for a fifth title, and very bad news for Fabien Barthez.

The dome-headed Marseille man is still suspended for spitting at a referee, in a friendly of all things, and does not return until October 16.

By then France will have played their final two World Cup qualifiers with Coupet in goal, and he will surely be retained if Les Bleus require a play-off in November. Barthez faces a tough job winning his place back.

Elsewhere, former Monaco coach Didier Deschamps is still counting the cost of tangling with club president Michel Pastor. The concept of the crazy foreign chairman is well established, through legendary chiefs such as Atlético Madrid's Jesús Gíl, who went through managers like lesser mortals do toothbrushes, and Luciano Gaucci of Perugia, who tried to sack Korean striker Ahn Jung-Hwan for scoring against Italy.

In France, the president is arguably even more influential. Witness Marseille last season, where a bitter power struggle between Pape Diouf and Robert Louis-Dreyfus effectively torpedoed their entire season.

So trigger happy are these boardroom assassins that Deschamps, appointed in 2001, had been the top flight's longest-serving coach. The dubious honour now falls to Erik Mombaerts of Toulouse.

So when Deschamps lambasted the board for failing to provide transfer funds, fuming: 'Monaco are not a big club,' it was never going to end happily. Michel Pastor is one of the more reserved presidents in Ligue 1, but was still capable of slagging off Deschamps' summer signings even when calling for calm.

'Certain signings have not been up to the expected standard. I'm not going to name them but they know who they are,' he said, before insisting in the next sentence, 'There's no need for controversy.'

Despite last season failing to recreate their march to the 2004 Champions League final, Monaco still enjoyed a decent campaign.

However, the present term has proved an unmitigated disaster. The Monegasques lost to Betis in Champions League qualifying before the summer signings had even unpacked their suitcases, prompting scathing words from French international full-back Patrice Evra.

A woeful, and largely goalless, start to the league campaign followed, with players, management and the coaching staff all at each others throats.

With Monte Carlo more resembling Albert Square than a millionaires' playground, a 2-0 home defeat to Rennes proved the final straw, with Deschamps given a police escort away from the ground before resigning the next morning.

Still a highly-respected coach, it will surely not be long until Deschamps is back in a high-profile job.

He has already been linked with the imminent vacancy at Real Madrid - perfect for a manager who is low on confidence - while this column would bet its meagre life savings that 'DD' will be saying 'Howay' to the Newcastle faithful before Christmas.

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