The pantomime season needs a villain and on Sunday night Hatem Ben Arfa obliged on his first return to Lyon after his controversial transfer to Marseille last summer. Did he wind up the league leaders by claiming they were "not a big club" because they made mistakes with payments to players? Oh yes, he did! Did he ever get on with Karim Benzema when they played together at Lyon? Oh no, he didn't! Did he get booed every time he touched the ball, and eventually get booked for dissent? Oh yes, he did!
It was just as well that Ben Arfa was around, because this top-of-the-table fixture had just three shots on target and ended goalless for the first time in its 39-game history. It left Lyon winless in four games and now only three points ahead of Marseille, Bordeaux and Paris St Germain.
Ben Arfa dominated the build-up, his face alongside Benzema on the cover of France Football with the headline The History of A Rivalry. Much of it was, as the French say, rechauffé, old news, and both players trotted out the same line: "I respect him as a player but we are not friends." A youth-team match when Ben Arfa moaned at a misplaced Benzema pass by cussing his team-mate's family, who happened to be watching, apparently marked the start of the frosty relationship.
Ben Arfa hardly improved his standing with others at his former club when he told Le Progress that Lyon were not classy about paying their players and often forgot to include bonuses in their pay-slips. Lyon's financial director, Marino Faccioli, responded by revealing that amidst all the kit that remained in Ben Arfa's training-ground locker after his departure, he had carelessly left behind a cheque for €90,000. "To accuse us of being financially disorganised is a bit much coming from him," said Faccioli, who sent the money to Ben Arfa's agent.
"I saw Ben Arfa play five years ago and today he's the same player," said RMC pundit Jean-Michel Larqué. "For me, he's not a good footballer, nor even a good player in the making. He's just not intelligent with his choice of passes." If Ben Arfa was the panto villain, the unlikely Cinderella figure was the Marseille centre-back Ronald Zubar, booed so mercilessly by his own fans three weeks ago that L'Equipe wondered if he would ever be picked again but who, after keeping Sergio Agüero quiet in midweek, barely gave Benzema a sniff of goal. "Lyon proved that they are the best team in France when they ran Bayern Munich ragged last week [coming back from 3-0 down to lose 3-2, in a game they could have won], so we were pleased to get something from the game," said L'OM coach Eric Gerets.
Lyon have picked up two points from a possible 12 and have beaten only one of the four teams behind them (and even in that game, against Bordeaux, they were out-played). There are four more teams three points behind the chasing pack and with Lyon the only French side left in the Champions League, the title race looks like it's on again.
Bordeaux won their first away match in five, beating Le Mans 3-1, with Fernando Cavenaghi opening the scoring. The Argentinian is Ligue 1's most prolific scorer in 2008, with 25 goals (Benzema is next on 17), yet has never started a Champions League match. "I worked really hard to help Bordeaux qualify and was very disappointed not to have played in the campaign," he said. "The coach told me it was a tactical decision." Cavegol, also known as El Torito, The Little Bull, is now joint top-scorer with Guillaume Hoarau and Pierre-Andre Gignac, and dreaming of a place in Diego Maradona's Argentina squad. "I often think that the French league is the most difficult one for forwards, it's perhaps the toughest place to score goals," he said, hoping to catch Diego's attention.
PSG were also able to take advantage of the top-of-the-table stalemate, deservedly beating Auxerre 2-1 thanks to two Stéphane Sessegnon goals. Despite having already lost six games, the same amount as Grenoble (14th) and one fewer than Sochaux (19th), no team has won more than PSG's 10 games, and Paul Le Guen is reaping the benefits of being able to pick an unchanged side for six games running.
Lorient's nautical winger turned playmaker Marama Vahirua scored a fantastic goal and celebrated with his traditional Tahitian kayaking impression (you had to be there) in the 3-1 win at bottom club Le Havre, whose coach Jean-Marc Nobilo is set to move upstairs with one of Frédéric Hantz, Patrick Remy, Albert Rust or René Girard taking on the impossible job of trying to keep them up.
Sochaux coach Francis Gillot was the Fairy Godmother of the week, after handing Guyanese teenager Sloan Privat a professional contract on Tuesday, and throwing him into action with 20 minutes left and his side 2-0 down to Caen. He pulled one goal back six minutes later and, on 89 minutes, equalised with a brilliant bicycle-kick. "I don't know why we played so well at the end, I just don't know," said Privat after the game. "All I know is it's been magic, a fantastic week for me. I'm on a cloud!" It was Sochaux's fourth straight draw, their 10th of the season. Gillot needs his magic wand to turn these draws into wins (they have won only one league game all season) to move out of the relegation zone.
The other draw specialists, Rennes, played out a 0-0 with Nantes to extend their unbeaten run to 16 games. They face Lorient in next week's Britanny derby, while PSG take on Valenciennes, Marseille host Nancy and Bordeaux go to Monaco. Caen welcome Lyon and, with one week to go before the winter break, the chorus from the chasing clubs is all too clear: "We're behind you!"
Results: Le Mans 1-3 Bordeaux; Auxerre 1-2 PSG; Toulouse 3-1 St Etienne; Valenciennes 3-1 Monaco; Sochaux 2-2 Caen; Nancy 2-0 Grenoble; Rennes 0-0 Nantes; Nice 0-1 Lille; Le Havre 1-3 Lorient; Lyon 0-0 Marseille