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Sep 21, 2010

Out of the frying pan and into the fire

Half-a-season is a long time in football. At the winter break last year Yoann Gourcuff, French football's long-awaited successor to Zinedine Zidane, was leading Laurent Blanc's Bordeaux on an imperious march to retaining their title. Everybody knew he would leave the Chaban-Delmas sooner or later, but he was meant to return as part of one of the world's finest sides. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

• Bordeaux 2-0 Lyon

On Sunday, Gourcuff arrived on the team bus of his new side, Olympique Lyonnais, less than a month after his shock departure. Upon his arrival, a few hundred Bordeaux fans whistled, booed, raised their middle fingers and chanted obscenities about their former idol.

Now, one may expect the fans to be piqued at the departure of their star man, especially to a close domestic rival, but the noises coming out of the club itself for a player who fired Bordeaux to their first title triumph in ten years have hardly been complimentary either.

New Bordeaux coach Jean Tigana recently told media he was "shocked" at Gourcuff's request to be allowed to leave on the morning of an important game against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes. "He should have showed more respect to the group, and to the club," said Tigana.

Even before, many decried Gourcuff's poor end to last season as the principal reason behind Bordeaux's alarming slump in 2010, which saw them relinquish a European place as well as their championship. More than one commentator remarked that his absence from the win-or-bust last day game at Lens was borne of self-interest to rest a calf strain ahead of the World Cup.

But the major factor to leave bitterness in Girondin mouths is the rivalry with Lyon. The clubs of these two affluent cities have never enjoyed the nationwide fervour with which PSG, Marseille or Saint-Etienne are followed, and have a history of petty squabbles and one-upmanship between one another.

The poor relationship between the clubs in recent times has been mapped by the frostiness of Lyon chief Jean-Michel Aulas' discourse with Bordeaux counterpart Jean-Louis Triaud. This personal enmity gathered pace with a 2005 dispute over the future of Marouane Chamakh, and the Gourcuff transfer was actually negotiated between Aulas and Bordeaux major shareholder Nicolas de Tavernost, with Triaud staying well out of it.

Predictably, the new man has been received royally in Lyon. Replica shirts printed with 'Gourcuff, 29' currently account for three-quarters of those sold on home match nights, but playing away is starkly different in France. With the Hexagon simply not having the culture of travelling support that exists in the UK, Germany or the Netherlands, it's certainly more partisan. Only around 50 supporters from Lyon made it to a remote corner of the stadium, and Gourcuff's name was met with a cacophony of whistles from the home support when the teams were read out before kick-off.

The No. 29 had been a doubt until the day before the match after suffering a dead leg in the Champions League win over Schalke, but there was no question of ducking his responsibilities. Lyon have played rotten football under Claude Puel, something overshadowed by some moments of genuine inspiration during last season's run to the Champions League last four, but Gourcuff, it is hoped within the club, will be the remedy to this excruciating lack of fluidity; although it is hard not to think that he is a Juninho substitute in the sense that his set-piece mastery will be used to cover a multitude of sins.

Against his former side, Gourcuff cut an isolated figure, starved of the ball for long periods. Though he threatened from set-plays, there was little to suggest that he can fill the boots of Lyon legend Junino in that respect, and the Chaban-Delmas crowd took great pleasure in every mistake.

At the time of the transfer it didn't go unnoticed in all quarters (well, not chez ESPNsoccernet, anyway) that the transfer was something of a gamble, but Lyon's poor form is putting Gourcuff's side of the punt into sharper focus than before. How he can rebuild his reputation, and reclaim his role as France's creative lynchpin, in a side struggling with the game's basics, is currently open to question.

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