We’re lead to believe that every dog has its day, and that may be true in most walks of life but in the case of the División 1 Feminine title, Olympique Lyonnais is the top dog and no other can rule the roost. Until now?
Close but no cookie
Around since the start of the 1970s, Paris Saint-Germain Feminine’s history is a well read tale of yo-yoing from the regional to the established, from the top tier to the second and back again. Not finding firm footing in the French topflight until the 2001-02 season, it still took the Parisiennes eight seasons of mediocrity to break into the top three in the country, unlocking a recognisable rivalry with Lyon.
They’ve finished the runner-up to the all-conquering winningest Lyon seven times, at best lagging behind by three points, at worst 14 points adrift (albeit with the previous scoring system in place). But for PSG – or any team hoping to topple Lyon – for a long time, it’s been clear, winning every match and digging out two draws against the champions isn’t enough; little short of a perfect season will do. For not only do Lyon rarely drop points – the powerhouse no strangers to 22 wins out of 22 – but the very nature that they tear their opposition limb from limb usually leaves them with an insurmountable goal difference. Even in 2014-15 when PSG only lost two matches (both to Lyon) as the champions went 22 for 22, PSG’s goal difference of +79 seemed paltry in comparison to Lyon’s quite breath-taking +141.
There is a way Lyon go about – or have gone about – winning titles. Yes, there has been a huge amount of work off of the pitch and time spent getting the team to where it has been and where it is but the mentality is bar none. This is the difference in División 1 Feminine. This is where PSG have fallen apart time and again.
Cat and mouse
Almost forged into the figure of a runner-up, a perennial silver medallist, when PSG look to close the gap and overtake their southern rivals, when they have the chance to do something they never have before, they panic. Last season the prime example of a team desperate to finally ascend to the pinnacle of club football in France but racked with fear and doubt. Lyon, for all their talent and dominance, have looked a little unstuck for a year or two, still a marauding match-winning, title-winning team when they need to be but not quite the side they were. With a newer coach at the helm, the tremors from the previous manager seem to have only intensified and Lyon, not only conceded goals (not something they’re known for) but dropped points too.
However, when Lyon have dropped those precious points, giving PSG the faintest glimmer of a historic season, the Parisiennes routinely followed suit, playing themselves out of the title race.
First there was Dijon, and a rare blank for Lyon, their 0-0 in late October 2019 – when PSG were flying and scoring with reckless abandon – gave PSG that rare hope, well, for two weeks. One full match day, that was ultimately all PSG had with breathing room at the top of the table before they surrendered their own two points in a score draw at home to Guingamp. Then came their first clash of the season, Décines-Charpieu a miserable location for the visitors, an unhappy history packaged in the south, Saki Kumagai’s lone strike just after halftime adding another page to an unhappy history.
It was a position they knew well, staring up at Lyon, three points between them, a veritable chasm. Lyon couldn’t and wouldn’t be caught, PSG made sure of it less than a month later when they hosted a Montpellier team still looking for a foothold, another 1-1 for PSG; the champions five points clear. Daylight.
But then it happened again. Just after PSG had let the gap deepen, Lyon drew another blank this time away to a gutsy and intelligent Bordeaux team. PSG’s 11-0 dismantling of Olympique Marseilles the previous day enough to bring the Parisiennes’ within two goals of Lyon on difference.
When the 2019-20 D1F season was curtailed, ahead of PSG vs Lyon in Paris, the perpetual champions sat three points ahead of the Parisiennes, their narrow victory over their northern rivals enough to award them another French title. PSG had once again failed to lift any silverware come the end of the season and that was that.
When football resumed, or began to resume in parts of Europe, PSG were forced to square off against Lyon twice more in quick succession, first in the Coupe de France final, then in a Champions League one-legged semi-final. Of course, over both matches, there was little to sperate the two, Lyon won the cup on penalties after a scoreless draw before dispatching PSG in the UWCL by a goal to nil.
At long last, a new chapter?
Aside from one stumble away to Bordeaux – a draw bereft of goals – PSG are enjoying the best season in their history, a [predictably narrow] win over Lyon in Paris last year enough to keep them at the summit of the table. With a happily superior goal difference to boot, PSG have yet to do what they so often have and panic. The team a mirror of the French national side in terms of an unfortunate mental fragility – a contrast to the juggernaut of Lyon – the Parisiennes have approached this campaign with an unfamiliar calm.
It is a cliché, but PSG’s toughest opposition has always been themselves, almost accepting the inevitable against Lyon and panicking (or bottling, if you will) when things seemed to be going too well. Although the title could yet go awry – a trip back to Décines-Charpieu in their near future – having overcome two deficits to knock Lyon out of the Champions League in Lyon, shows a newfound resilience.
In years past, PSG could have let their heads drop after conceding a stoppage time penalty in the first leg, or when they found themselves a goal down in Lyon just four minutes into the second leg. Yet, the team did not, they rallied and hit the hosts for all they had, and even after scoring the tie-winning second goal, the team were steadfast as OL attacked with renewed vigour. For the first time in six and a half years, PSG claimed a victory in Lyon, knocking the champions out of Europe.
Although PSG will have to deal with two matches against Barcelona over the next two weeks, their league run-in is a kinder one than Lyon’s. Their only long trip will be to Lyon, their other games all [on paper] very winnable. Conversely, Lyon have more traveling to, including a trip to a plucky Bordeaux side. Of course, nothing is written in stone, and PSG fans are all too familiar with what follows when they get their hopes up, but maybe, oh just maybe if we whisper it…