Ligue 1 football: Ben Lyttleton on Rennes' Mickaël Pagis

Rennes' 35-year-old striker Mickaël Pagis won the plaudits, but it's Toulouse who are keeping the pressure on Lyon at the top

If you were looking for a way to get out of a tough game against your local rivals the next day, it would be the perfect excuse: "Sorry boss, I've got a bit of a headache today. Three armed men broke into my house last night, smashed me over the head with the butt of their shotgun, threatened my wife and kids, nicked my Audi A5 and then tried to ram-raid it into two supermarkets before the bastards burnt it."

That's what Florent Balmont told the Lille coach Rudy Garcia on Saturday morning after his eventful Friday night, but the hard-man midfielder added that he still wanted to play against neighbouring Valenciennes. So there he was, sporting a nasty cut on the back of his head, as he put in a typically combative man-of-the-match performance to earn his side a 1-0 win in the northern derby, with Jacques Abardonado's own-goal proving the winner.

"Florent's response was exceptional," said the Lille president Michel Seydoux. Balmont's friend Sebastien Roudet explained: "He wanted to play to turn the page and that result would have brought him some calm after one hell of a day." Balmont is not the first footballing victim of such a crime in the region: Christophe Landrin was at Lille when he was car-jacked, while Valenciennes's Gaël Danic had two cars nicked last summer. And nor was Balmont's the only mugging of the weekend in France: Lyon suffered their first setback of the season, losing 3-0 at Rennes.

"Simply Pagistral!" was how L'Equipe described the performance of Rennes' 35-year-old hat-trick hero Mickaël Pagis. "The Pagisian" is what his team-mates call him, though when he arrived 15 months ago, it was a different story: he needed 11 games to get off the mark, and the director-coach Pierre Dréossi and fans lost patience with him. Pagis confronted one critical fan live on Canal Plus but the supporter ran away.

Pagis might have feared the worst when Guy Lacombe replaced Dréossi last December — he had left Sochaux in 2004 after a huge fall-out with the same coach — but he was soon back in favour and ended up Rennes' top scorer. "I know how to get the best out of Micka," said Lacombe. "We know that if you give him a little bit of space in front of goal, he has a great technique and the sang-froid to make the difference."

This season Pagis has already scored two against Marseille and now three against Lyon (the last player to score a hat-trick against Lyon was also from Rennes: John Utaka, now at Portsmouth, in February 2006). "Sometimes people criticise me for trying to do difficult things but that's what the game is all about," said Pagis. "People pay to see something special and I like to think I'm one of those players who can do something out of the ordinary."

Pagis has always been a bit of a rebel, the kind adored by his club's teams and misunderstood by everyone else. In that respect, he is a modern-day Cantona-Lite. "His technique and reading of the game are as good as Michel Platini's," said Albert Emon, the coach in his one season at Marseille. "He's still the best ball player in France." Pagis' contract is up at the end of the season, and he is undecided about playing on.

Lyon went into the game five points clear and claimed that the defeat changes little. "We're still top of the table and it's not serious," said the captain Juninho, who started on the bench but insisted that Claude Puel's rotation system — which meant Kim Källström played at left-back and Kader Keita struggled in his first start of the season — was not causing problems. "Everyone needs to have a game and others need to rest."

Pagis admitted that Puel's decision to switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 gave him more room in front of the centre-backs. "It's rare to have that much time to control the ball and set it up to shoot," he said of his wonderful third goal. Karim Benzema summed up the mood, saying: "We're still in front and I guess everyone will think it's good for the title race."

That much is true, especially as the five teams behind Lyon all won. Bordeaux and Marseille went into their matches under some pressure after second straight Champions League defeats drew unflattering comparison with Anorthosis Famagusta (224th on Uefa's ranking list but with four points from their two group games). "Let's imitate Famagusta" was the L'Equipe headline before a disturbing wage comparison showed the Cypriot side pay Savio Bortolini €480,000 per year, compared with Alou Diarra's €1.32m and Bolo Zenden's €3.12m.

Marseille ended their wretched September run of six winless games with a nervy 2-1 success at home to Caen — just as the critics started claiming that losing Djibril Cissé on loan had made the strikers complacent about their place in the side. "If anything went wrong when I was there it was always my fault, and now they're saying L'OM miss me," said Cissé. "Give the guys a break."

It was not a vintage match for goalkeepers: the Caen No1 Vincent Planté seemed to dive out of the way of Hatem Ben Arfa's early shot, while Steve Mandanda's fumble gifted Steve Savidan an equaliser. Mamadou Niang headed the winning goal and the hosts held on after Karim Ziani was sent off with 20 minutes left. The Caen coach Franck Dumas was furious that Planté had stones and batteries thrown at him from the stands. "We took them to the officials after the game and they asked if he was sure they had come from the stands," said Dumas. "I can tell them now, he didn't have them down his pants when he went out to play."

Bordeaux came from behind to beat Lorient 2-1
, with Yoann Gourcuff man of the match in his first game against the team coached by his father Christian. "I knew it would be odd to face my dad, but I was happy to be at Lorient as this is my city, where my friends and family are." Gourcuff is in a rich vein of form and deserves to keep his place as France's playmaker for the World Cup qualifier against Romania, despite Franck Ribéry's return to fitness. He now has a celebrity girlfriend, the swimmer Laure Manaudou, to befit his star status.

Also in great form is the Toulouse forward André-Pierre Gignac, who hit the match-winner for the second week running, this time against Auxerre. Signed from Lorient for €5m, Gignac admitted that he "lost it" last season, as he was played out of position to accommodate Johan Elmander. "I became poor in training and I knew people at club were starting to wonder if they made a big mistake with me," he said. "But I have worked hard and I want to shut up those who spat on me last season."

St Etienne continued their revival with a 2-0 win over Monaco
, with Bafé Gomis showing signs of his last-season form, while Paris St Germain drew 1-1 at Nancy, a decent result considering they were missing Claude Makéléle, Ludo Giuly and Jérôme Rothen.

Behind the scenes, there are talks to prevent a players' strike in Round 10 later this month. The sports minister Bernard Laporte has reportedly backed club presidents' plans to take majority control of le conseil d'administration, effectively French football's governing body, despite outrage from the players' union. "If the presidents want to run their own show, they should get on with it and even set up a parallel league," said man of the people Savidan, "but we want no part of it."

The Bordeaux president Jean-Louis Triaud, however, is confident that his colleagues will win the battle. "It will be the first time that a millionaires' trade union called for a strike but at Bordeaux, I can tell you, there will be no strike. The presidents will win." Let's just hope the matter is resolved soon: this weekend, Ligue 1 provided unlikely heroes in Balmont and Pagis, and long may that continue.

Results: Toulouse 1-0 Auxerre, Marseille 2-1 Caen, Grenoble 0-1 Nantes, Le Havre 1-2 Le Mans, Lorient 1-2 Bordeaux, Nice 1-1 Sochaux, Lille 1-0 Valenciennes, Rennes 3-0 Lyon, St Etienne 2-0 Monaco, Nancy 1-1 PSG

The full Ligue 1 table is here.


Ben Lyttleton

The GuardianTramp

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