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Apr 17, 2007

Barthez blunders cost Canaris dear

With the French title race reduced to a dreary one-horse crawl for Lyon, all the attention is at the foot of the table as habitual bottom feeders are joined by a couple of big fish.

While Paris St Germain appear to have turned things round sufficiently to hope for a better showing in the top flight next year, Nantes' record 44-season tryst with Ligue 1 looks likely to soon come to a bitter parting of the ways.

The Nantes squad have all been reading from the same hymn sheet recently, harping on about how every match from now until the end of the season is a 'cup final.'

That's not strictly true as Wednesday's date with Marseille is only a French Cup semi-final, but with just six games to go and les Canaris perched perilously on the bottom rung of the Ligue 1 ladder, there is a ring of truth to the cliché.

Last weekend's dreary goalless draw with Lens was Nantes' first point from four games, and while a Cup win over OM could boost morale, the squad's eyes should be firmly fixed on their league visit to the Parc des Princes to face PSG next Saturday.

Currently three points off safety - effectively four given their pitiful goal difference - defeat in the capital could spell the end for a club who were the last champions of France not to be called 'Lyon.'

That was 2001, but the club has been on a slippery slope ever since, barely avoiding relegation in 2005 when not so much a twist but rather a somersault with half-pike of fate miraculously kept them from the clutches of the Ligue 2 backwaters before finishing a mediocre 14th last term.

This is a far cry from the 1990s when emblematic coach Jean-Claude Suaudeau won the Ligue 1 title in '95 and brought them to within a whisker of the Champions League final the following year with only eventual winners Juventus halting them in the last four.

Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly, Claude Makelele and Christian Karembeu were all given their first break as professionals at the Stade de la Beaujoire as Nantes' youth development program bore prodigiously talented fruit and became the envy of Europe.

But with the youth academy supply drying up - only Jeremy Toulalan and Mickael Landreau have made any significant impact in the last five years - the club have been forced to look further afield, a policy that has proved almost ludicrously ineffective this season as the new recruits spectacularly failed to adapt to the club's ethos.

Of four foreign signings made last summer, just one - the Cameroon midfielder Alioum Saidou - didn't find himself loaned out in the January transfer window.

One of those packing his bags, Christian Wilhelmsson, was good enough to play in Roma's quarter-final massacre at the hands of Manchester United, while another, keeper Vladimir Stojkovic, has retained sufficient hand-eye co-ordination to play in Serbia's crucial Euro 2008 qualifiers, which begs the question of just how Nantes could deprive themselves of players of such pedigree?

While Wilhelmsson's departure remains a mystery, that of Stojkovic - bought to replace club icon Landreau - had a more ready explanation in the arrival of Fabien Barthez at the turn of the year.

Drawing his pension having failed to find a club after the World Cup final, Barthez was tempted to pull on his gloves by the prospect of saving one of French football's most respected and loved clubs from the abyss.

A masterstroke by club president Rudi Roussillon one would have thought, but the man known as the 'Divine Baldy' in his native country has had team-mates and supporters alike tearing their hair out for the last four months.

The tone was set when Barthez stomped out of one of his early training sessions after complaining that shots were being blasted at him from close range, while he has been quick to criticise team-mates which - as can be imagined - has not gone down well in the dressing-room.

Roussillon has only himself to blame as he agreed a 'moral contract' with the former France keeper which gave Barthez carte blanche.

This is not the first time, however, that Barthez has been given prima donna treatment - even Sir Alex Ferguson was talked into allowing him 48 hours a week in France when 'Fabulous [sic] Fab' was at Manchester United.

But the know-all demeanour of his personal entourage - who thought it appropriate to tell club doctors how best to 'refuel' the players - has understandably put backroom staff noses out of joint, while Barthez's sub-par performances on the pitch this season have meant his off-the-pitch caprices have been met with a frosty lack of sympathy.

'[Barthez's] competitive mentality means we'll win each time we have to win,' Roussillon has claimed, but this is contradicted by bare stats.

In three games against direct rivals in the relegation scrap, Barthez has failed to take a single point, letting a Troyes free-kick slip through his grasp (admittedly having earlier saved a penalty), he shipped a humiliating five goals against Valenciennes, while his latest howler - an inexplicable girly palm into his own net of an innocuous cross against second-off-bottom Sedan - has helped Nantes slip from the relative safety of 17th to bottom.

After that mistake against Sedan, Barthez limped off and stormed out of La Beaujoire even before the final whistle, ostensibly with a bruised thigh - though his ego may have been sporting an equally large haematoma - a move which further alienated him from the squad.

The players held a picnic at their training ground last week in a bid to boost unity, but the fact they felt the need to hold such a team-building event so late in the day when the situation has been critical for some months suggests things are far from unified.

To be fair to Barthez, the fact is Nantes is not a club where stars arrive as the finished article, but is the place where they're hewn from raw talent, nurtured and polished into potential greats.

When the news filtered through that Barthez would be joining the survival bid, veteran midfielder Frederic Da Rocha - Nantes boy and man - merely declared, 'It's another player who's come in. We'll see what he does,' which suggests Barthez was on a hiding to nothing in terms of being accepted in the dressing-room.

And for all the finger can be pointed at the World Cup and Euro 2000 winner for his hands-on role (should that be 'hands-off'?) in the mess, he is not alone in bearing the burden of blame.

Without him, the rest of the squad had claimed just 17 points from their first 19 games - hardly the stuff top-three finishes are made of - while their pathetically woeful attack is the joint worst in Ligue 1 with just 26 notches on its collective belt with another winter signing, Belgium 'hitman' Luigi Pieroni, contributing just the once.

The tone for the lack of direction on the pitch though has been set by the lack of direction off it as the club has moved further and further away from the homely, home-grown identity which had proved so successful in previous seasons.

Raynald Denoueix, the man who coached the 2001 title-winning side, was mercilessly sacked the season after claiming the championship and though Nantes have retained the 'Boot Room' ethos of employing former players as manager, five different bums have been in the hot-seat since.

The management duo currently in charge, Michel Der Zakarian and Japhet N'Doram, is the result of two sackings already this season, seismic tremors behind the scenes that make a mockery of Jose Mourinho's claims of 'instability' at Chelsea, while the irony that N'Doram was the man responsible for last summer's transfer debacle in his previous role as sporting director seems to have been conveniently forgotten.

Roussillon must take a further portion of the blame for the upheaval after stereotypically giving a vote of confidence to ex-coaches Serge Le Dizet and Georges Eo last September and February this year respectively only to then promptly show them a door marked Sortie, while his state of denial over the disruptive presence of Barthez is so impressive the Americans are thinking of bringing him into PR the Iraq war.

That head-in-the-sand policy and the lack of backroom calm has proved disastrous for the team, and with Champions League-chasing Toulouse and Bordeaux to come before a final-day jaunt to Lyon in a minefield of a run-in, a recent poll in sports daily L'Equipe, in which 80% of readers thought Nantes would go down, looks like it will be a prophecy fulfilled.

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