Club of the Month: Les Herbiers – David to PSG’s Goliath

Photo: PA

THE FA Cup made its name on romantic tales of small clubs battling against the giants of the game, creating gripping stories that get retold time and time again. But this year, France has a fairy-tale that would rival any FA Cup saga – little Les Herbiers of National 1 taking on Paris St. Germain.

The Coupe de France often throws up the unlikely – since 1999, 10 clubs from outside the top two divisions in France have reached the semi-finals. This season there were two – Chambly and Les Herbiers – and they were drawn to meet each other in the last four. Both were struggling when Les Herbiers beat Chambly 2-0 in Nantes in front of 35,000 people – to claim a place against the mighty PSG in the final on May 8.

These unlikely heroes have failed to reproduce their cup form in National 1, in fact there’s a good chance they might get relegated to National 2. With just two games remaining, Les Herbiers are level on points with Pau with 36 points and two in front of Consolat Marseille.

Les Herbiers, arguably, have a tough finale, facing teams in the top six – Laval on May 4 and Béziers away on May 11. The key will be the home game against Laval, given Béziers are near the top. Pau, who have beaten Les Herbiers twice this season, face bottom-placed Créteil and top club Red Star, while Consolat travel to Boulogne and host Dunkerque. It is likely to go down to the final day, by which time, the team from Vendée will have made more history or been cast in the role of lambs to the slaughter.

The town, Les Herbiers, has a population of 15,000 and around 10% of them watch the club at their Stade Massabielle. They like their cycling and the town hosts the Chrono des Nations, a one-day bicycle race held every October.

Manager Stéphane Masala, who only took the job on a short-term basis, was overjoyed at reaching the final of the Coupe de France. “That feels good, I’m so proud, we’ve done it…we’re going to Paris to play in the final! I’m so proud of my players…the build-up to this game was long, I barely slept, I haven’t eaten, but that’s my job, I’ve done my work, that’s all.”

Essentially, Les Herbiers is comparable to a non-league club in England with loyal volunteers keeping it going. They are not strictly amateur but the players benefit from federal contracts.

It is a relatively young squad with most of the team in their peak years. The semi-final goals were scored by Florian David (25) and the tireless Ambroise Gboho (23), while the leading scorer is the fleet-footed Kévin Rocheteau, who is on loan from Niort. Cameroon striker Rodrigue Bongongui has been vital in the Coupe de France, scoring four goals.

At the moment, the locals are right behind the club as it prepares to face PSG. Since reaching the final, the town has been buzzing with talk of the big game in the Stade de France. Tickets are selling well, with almost 15,000 being snapped-up already.

“This is about football business against football of the heart,” said one club official. However, Les Herbiers will greatly benefit from reaching the Coupe de France final – they received €1.2 million for getting that far. Given that the club’s budget is around € 2 million, compared to PSG’s €540 million, this is big money.

Les Herbiers have been fortunate in the draw and when they face Neymar and co. it will be the first clash against a Ligue 1 team. Their cup run started with a win against Balma and then Romorantin, Angoulême, FC Saint Lô Manche, Auxerre and Lens were all beaten (the latter on penalties) before the semi-final. Their league form has arguably suffered in the meantime, with one win in the past five games.

The meeting with PSG will go down in history as Les Herbiers’ finest moment, but either side of that game on May 8, Masala’s team will be fighting to stay in National 1. The next week or two could be a bitter-sweet experience for the club’s small and loyal band of fans.

Photo: PA

 

Coupe de France: The Ibra factor

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HE’S ARROGANT, he’s controversial, but he is an exceptional talent. And today, Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays his last game for Paris St. Germain, the Coupe de France final against Olympique Marseille.

The pre-match talk has been as much about Zlatan’s fitness as the next stop on his incredibly glittering career. Whether you like him or not – and you’ll always want a player like him on your side rather than in opposition – you cannot deny the phenomenal statistics that back up his claim to be one of the all-time modern greats.

While there have been reports of a troublesome calf, the cynics might argue that Zlatan is keeping his audience waiting, teasing them ahead of the final. Even just a few hours before the game, there are news stories that claim “Zlatan is fit”, “Zlatan if struggling”, “Zlatan ruled out”. He’s a showman, one of the few left in the game. How much publicity is, in fact, part of the very mystique of Sweden’s talismanic striker?

And what a finale to his PSG career – Le Classique. PSG will go into the game as red hot favourites after their runaway campaign that saw them win 30 of their 38 Ligue 1 games, score 102 goals, concede 19 and notch up 96 points. Marseille finished 13th with half as many points and goals, and just a third of PSG’s wins. PSG won both meetings in Ligue 1 by 2-1.

Zlatan’s season was his best in PSG’s colours – 48 goals in all competitions, including 38 in Ligue 1. His arrival in Paris became a symbol of the PSG monopoly, the question is not just where he will go next, but who will PSG sign to become the figurehead of their relentless pursuit of silverware?

What will he settle for? This is a player who does not know how to end a season without a league title. In 15 campaigns, he has won 13 championships – four with PSG, one with Milan, one with Barca, three with Inter, two with Juve and two with Ajax.

It is likely that PSG will win Ligue 1 again even without their prized asset and if they beat Marseille in the Coupe de France final, it will be a second successive clean sweep of French football.

Can Marseille pull off a shock result? There can be no greater motivation for them given that this is France’s big derby – the cultural hub of French café society against the working class port of Marseille. North v South.

Marseille may have a matchwinner in Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi, who scored 17 goals in Ligue 1 this season. It will also be his last game for his club as OM coach Franck Passi announced that Batshuayi is on the move in the summer, with English Premier clubs West Ham and Tottenham interested in the youngster.

Marseille have had an easier passage to the final than PSG. They beat Sochaux, Granville, Trelissac, Montpellier and Caen on the route to the Stade de France, and they have yet to concede a goal. PSG have disposed of Lorient, St. Etienne, Lyon, Toulouse and Wasquehal.

This is the Coupe de France’s 99th year. An astonishing 8,500 teams enter the competition. Marseille are the most successful club in its history, winning 10 and losing in the final on a further eight occasions. PSG have won nine and finished runners-up four times. So we have two teams with a strong pedigree in this year’s final. PSG are the holders and they are also holding the trump card. Don’t bet against Zlatan bowing out like all true actors – dramatically.

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