Over the past few years French clubs have been criticised for their lacklustre performances in the Europa League. History doesn’t lie, and in the last 19 years only two French clubs have reached the final of UEFA’s little-brother competition.
In 2004, Marseille fell 2-0 to Valencia in Gothenburg, five years after Parma had beaten the southerners 3-0 in the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
This season, French hopes are resting on Monaco, Marseille, Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne. Expectations are high for the first two, but with difficult draws and Willy Sagnol’s team kicking off their campaign at home to Liverpool, just escaping the group would be a result.
Two years before they would become household names at the World Cup, Zinedine Zidane and Christophe Dugarry led an unfancied Bordeaux side to the final of the 1996 UEFA Cup. Played over two-legs, the French side, led by German coach Gernot Rohr faced the might of Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich.
With the odds already stacked against them, Bordeaux had to play the first leg without their two French stars. Rohr, a former defender that had played over 350 games for Les Girondins, didn’t have an answer for Bayern’s attack, led by Jurgen Klinsmann and former Bordelais striker Jean-Pierre Papin, the German’s went to Bordeaux with a 2-0 lead.
Bayern would comfortably win the final 5-1 on aggregate, but Bordeaux’s success showed what could be achieved with a team mentality. Despite having the future Ballon d’Or winner, Dugarry and the superb Bixente Lizarazu, Rohr’s achievements were built on the collective – similar to what Sagnol is currently building at the new Le Matmut Atlantique stadium.
Opened in May of 2015, Bordeaux’s 42,000 seater stadium will welcome Liverpool for its first ever European game and usher in a new era for Les Marine et Blanc.
Going into the game, Sagnol has a number of key injury issues that have affected their season. Centre-backs Lamine Sane and Cedric Yambere will likely be missing, as well as Gregory Sertic and Cheick Diabate – severely weakening the spine of his team.
However, as is the spirit within Sagnol’s squad, others have stepped up in their absence.
Nicolas Pallois, signed last summer from Ligue 2 side Chamois Niort has shown constant improvement. A typically strong centre-back, he has a non-nonsense approach and has looked the part in his 50 appearances for the club.
Liverpool’s Tiago Ilori failed to make an impact in Ligue 1 last season, Bordeaux never really got the see the best of him due to injury problems, and this summer they have signed Brazilian Pablo to fill his spot – in the 2-2 draw away in Paris on Friday, he made an accomplished and promising debut.
Coming from behind twice against the Ligue 1 champions showed heart, togetherness and the tenacity that could take them through the Europa League group stage.
In their five games this season, Sagnol has leaned towards 4-4-2 with the influential Wahbi Khazri playing behind France under-21 striker Enzo Crivelli.
On Friday, it was Khazri that sparked Bordeaux’s comeback. His set-pieces were a constant menace and his desire to continually push and pressure the PSG defence forced Kevin Trapp’s second half mistake and the Tunisian international stole in to score the equaliser.
The 24-year-old will be the key man again on Thursday. He has a low centre of gravity and rarely gives the ball away cheaply. Khazri will drift around the pitch looking to find gaps in Brendan Rodgers’ defence, and he will likely create at least one or two chances for Bordeaux.
Across the rest of the team, there are less stand out players, but more a blend of experience and youth. Crivelli looks a throwback to an old fashioned No.9 but has lacked that goal-scoring touch.
Henri Saivet was sent off against PSG on Friday, but it came after a strong, positive performance. He started as another “next Thierry Henry” but has shown versatility in playing all over the midfield.
Cedric Carrasso has over 300 Ligue 1 games under his belt, but is still prone to the odd mistake – which he showed on Friday. However, he is still a quality shot-stopper and on his day, can be one of the better ‘keepers in Ligue 1.
Liverpool will start heavy favourites, but with a bumper home crowd cheering on their Bordelais heroes, and buoyed by Friday’s performance, anything is possible.
Bordeaux will want to win as many points as possible at their new home ground, but for Les Girondins to overcome Liverpool on Thursday, it is going to take a huge team effort rather than one of two individual performances.