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Lyon's gift to the rest

As French football enters its winter break, Olympique Lyonnais are a club in freefall. Their 3-1 defeat against Lille was the culmination of a string of poor performances and leaves them just, er, twelve points clear at the top of the table.

OK, so nobody actually believes that Lyon are actually going to slip up in their quest for a fifth consecutive title, but their first loss under Gérard Houllier gives the chasing pack a glimmer of hope and proves that the runaway leaders are at least human.

The result ended a run of 27 games unbeaten under Houllier, including six in the Champions League, but it was no real surprise that he finally had to deliver a post-match rocket. Unlike Houllier's dour Liverpool side from the early part of the decade, Lyon are a joy to watch going forward and distinctly rickety at the back.

Prior to the Lille game they had to come from behind to get a result in nine of their 18 league matches, an amazing statistic for a side that had only conceded a total of ten goals. On Friday, they were unable to pull off a tenth comeback as strikes from Peter Odemwingie, Mathieu Debuchy and Stéphane Dumont sparked a barrage of miserable introspection from the champions.

'We didn't play well. We've only got ourselves to blame for this match,' said despondent centre-back Cris, while captain Caçapa added: 'In the first half, we weren't at the races.'

Although they failed to complete a second consecutive calendar year without defeat away from home, Lyon's main concern remains the Champions League, where they have been set a target of the semi-finals by president Jean-Michel Aulas.

After an exhilarating group stage campaign, they have been drawn in the last 16 against PSV Eindhoven, the side who knocked them out on penalties last season. It is just about the worst possible draw; difficult but boring. PSV are not the side they were last year, following the departures of midfield trio Mark van Bommel, Johann Vogel and Park Ji-Sung. But the Dutch champions are very mean at the back and could be tough to beat if Lyon hand them an early lead.

The rest of France can only hope that Lyon suffer the same kind of meltdown as Monaco did two seasons ago, when they led by eight points before, sidetracked by a trip to the Champions League final, they meekly surrendered their advantage and finished third. But with Lyon's quality and strength in depth, it looks incredibly unlikely.

Laurent Fournier's future is not secure
Pierre Blayau
A whopping five French sides go into the knockout stages of Europe's penultimate club competition - the UEFA Cup - after Lille parachuted in from the Champions League. They join Lens, Monaco, Marseille and Strasbourg in the last 32 after all successfully negotiated the utterly laborious group stage. Strasbourg are particularly enjoying their experience in Europe, where they have already secured four times as many wins as in the league, where they remain rock bottom with a solitary victory to their name.

One side with no European distractions are Paris St-Germain, who nonetheless continue to dominate the headlines. Although they remain in the thick of an unseemly eight-way scrap for second, PSG's perpetual mediocrity seems certain to claim another managerial victim. Laurent Fournier was reportedly given an ultimatum of the 'win or die' variety before last weekend's match at Ajaccio, but he kept his job in spite of a one-all draw.

However, president Pierre Blayau's ominous declaration that 'Laurent Fournier's future is not secure' will hardly sweeten the embattled coach's Christmas sherry. He may find that Père Noël leaves a P45 under the tree if Blayau somehow manages to persuade former Lyon boss Paul Le Guen to come to the capital.

Mind you, Fournier could be in for a hefty pay-off if he plays his cards right. On Monday his predecessor Vahid Halilhodzic was awarded €3.5m (over two million quid) compensation by an industrial tribunal following his sacking by PSG early in 2005.

While Blayau sharpens his axe, the players have been vocal in their support of Fournier, crying out for some much-needed steadiness. Club captain Pedro Pauleta said: 'Stability is always difficult at PSG, but the club needs things to calm down. There's always something going on here.'

All of which shenanigans has rather overshadowed Pauleta's form on the pitch, where he still stands out as the country's top striker by miles. The 32-year-old is enjoying perhaps his best season yet, and leads the scoring charts with 12 league goals.

Which, as Rennes forward Alex Frei pointed out, makes his presence at PSG something of a waste. 'He's certainly the best striker in Ligue 1,' said Frei. 'I don't want to be disrespectful to PSG, but I find it astonishing that Pauleta isn't playing for a team like Manchester United or Barcelona. I don't know if the scouts have tomatoes in front of their eyes, but something isn't quite right.'

Ligue 1 restarts on January 4th, when clubs will be desperate to rack up some points before the traditional exodus of players to the African Nations Cup.

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