Alain Perrin is struggling to keep St-Etienne in the top flight.

By Howard Johnson in Paris
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Alain Perrin was sitting on top of the world, guiding runaway leaders Lyon to their seventh successive championship. Now he finds himself in the fight of his life to keep Lyon’s fiercest local rivals Saint-Etienne from slipping through the relegation trapdoor.

To be fair it wasn’t all plain sailing for the former Marseille and Portsmouth manager when he was at Lyon. The worst-kept secret in French football was the fact that he didn’t see eye to eye with key members of his coaching staff, that certain elements of the dressing room were lukewarm towards him and that he would be off at the end of the season regardless of whether he won the title. But dealing with the problems of a winning team and sorting out a side that has won just eight out of 29 matches clearly isn’t the same thing.

Saint-Etienne have been a Jekyll and Hyde outfit his season. Their progress in the UEFA Cup was impressive before being halted by the Germans of Werder Bremen in the last 16. Their domestic form, however, has been awful despite having a team that features some of the best young talent on display in Ligue 1. Defensive midfielder Blaise Matuidi is regarded as one of France’s hottest prospects and has already been targeted by Spurs and Arsenal, while full-back Mouhamadou Dabo was even called up by national boss Raymond Domenech for France’s last friendly against Argentina.

The old cliche that Saint-Etienne are too good to go down has been bandied around, which in itself should set alarm bells ringing in manager Perrin’s head. The team’s most recent outing, a 3-1 defeat away to Lorient, should only confirm that the danger of the drop is only too real.

Saint-Etienne’s saving grace could be the fact that things are so tight in the drop zone. With nine games to go just six points separate seven clubs. Only poor Le Havre, rooted in last spot and nine points adrift of next-placed Caen, have no chance of survival. If the clubs involved can divest themselves of their naturally cautious tendencies and try to pull themselves clear with wins rather than draws, then it promises to be an exciting end to the season.

Up at the top end of Ligue 1 things are hotting up nicely too. Lyon are still clinging onto top spot by their fingertips, but Marseille are really breathing down their necks. Only one point separates the two clubs, while all of Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lille and Paris Saint-Germain are within four points of Claude Puel’s side. Can Marseille finally knock Lyon off their perch and claim the title? It would be a massively popular achievement if they could do it, at least all over the south of the country where Eric Gerets’ side is still by far the most loved outfit in the public’s eyes. You can see ‘OM’ car stickers everywhere down south, even in Toulouse, which is a good 200 miles from Marseille.

And talking of Toulouse, we must make special mention of the city’s own football team. Last year under Elie Baup they were an anodyne outfit that avoided relegation by the merest whisker. This campaign, however, coach Alain Casanova has turned the TFC into a team of battlers who never know when they’re beaten, with the ability to score goals and bloody the noses of the top clubs. The recent 4-1 home thrashing of Paris Saint-Germain provides ample proof of the progress made by the south-west club and with striker Andre-Pierre Gignac currently topping the list of French goalscorers all is very much well in the place they call The Pink City.