Sunday September 26th, 2010

Bordeaux broke a French top-flight record when it won the league title in 2008-09, winning its last 11 games to jump four places and overturn a six-point deficit. At the time, it was as though a perfect storm had descended over Les Girondins. Stats later showed that no team that season scored more goals from headers (22), from set-piece moves (25, nine from corners), from substitutes (10) or by coming from behind (23 points).

It helped that Lyon was coming to the end of its cycle of success and that Marseille was not yet ready to step in, but in truth, the success came down to two men who united at the perfect time: Laurent Blanc, a former World Cup winner with France who was in his first job as a coach, and Yoann Gourcuff, a talented midfielder on loan from AC Milan who has since developed into one of France's outstanding players.

Two seasons later, both men have left the club -- Blanc is France coach and Gourcuff moved to Lyon for a French-record $35.5 million -- and now Bordeaux is adjusting to a new reality. For only the fourth time in club history, it lost the first two matches of the season, and was dangerously close to the relegation zone until last week's 2-0 win over Gourcuff and Lyon lifted it into mid-table.

"If we had lost that game, it would have been a catastrophe," new coach Jean Tigana told the newspaper Sud-Ouest.

Tigana was part of France's "Carre Magique," or Magic Square, in the mid-1980s, when he played alongside Michel Platini, Luis Fernandez and Alain Giresse for the national side. He coached Lyon and Monaco, winning the 1997 title with the latter (with a team that included future stars David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry) before guiding Fulham into the Premier League in 2001. He left London two years later under a cloud, with the club alleging he had deliberately overpaid for players.

Tigana won the subsequent court case for wrongful dismissal but insisted the trial cost him a chance of becoming France coach after Euro 2004.

"Without a doubt, that weighed on peoples' minds when it came to the moment of choosing the France coach," Tigana told the sports daily L'Equipe at the time. "Some people trusted me but others used the trial to eliminate me."

He later claimed the French federation was racist because he did not get the job. (It went to Raymond Domenech instead, and we all know how that turned out).

Tigana won the Turkish Cup in a two-season spell at Besiktas, but he had been out of work for three years when Bordeaux, where he had spent eight years as a player, appointed him to replace Blanc this summer. It was quickly apparent that the club was on a downward spiral. Bordeaux was in first place after Week 30 last season, but won only two of its final 10 league matches and finished sixth, out of the European qualification places. It also lost Marouane Chamakh, the talismanic forward, on a free transfer to Arsenal.

The new signings, strikers Anthony Modeste and Moussa Maazou and winger Fahid Ben Khalfallah, have joined from smaller sides and need time to adjust. Jaroslav Plasil and Jussie have been responsible for the creative burden once shouldered by Gourcuff, but both players can drift out of games. Wendel is expected to replace one of them when he returns to fitness.

Club president Jean-Louis Triaud, fed up with questions about Gourcuff before the Lyon match, snapped: "We do have other players who know how to take corners." But with no obvious replacement, Gourcuff's absence is keenly felt.

Tigana has emphasized the inheritance left by Blanc, claiming that his players' confidence was at rock bottom when he joined, and that the club's form, especially away from home (where Bordeaux failed to win a league game last season after Jan. 20), was relegation material. The team is also getting accustomed to a new way of playing. While Blanc encouraged attacking football at all times, Tigana is more cautious and prefers to adjust his tactics according to the opponents.

At the moment, inconsistency is Bordeaux's biggest problem. It has done well against Paris Saint-Germain (winning 2-1) and Marseille (1-1) but slumped against less-fancied sides, like the opening-day loss to Montpellier. The win over Lyon came after a toothless 2-1 defeat to Nice, after which Triaud told reporters: "We looked like an amateur team and that simply cannot continue."

Not that Tigana's job is under threat at this early stage of the season. He is in for the long haul, according to club owner Nicolas de Tavernost, the chief executive of TV station M6.

"The players have had their contracts renewed and now have to regroup around the coach," he told Ouest-France. "Now is the time for collective goals to take precedence over personal concerns -- and the target this season is to qualify for the Champions League. That's vital for the club."

The problem is, Bordeaux's squad is so different from the one that won the title two years ago that a top-three finish is a tough ask this season. As the club comes to terms with its new status, it may not be too long before we look back at the Blanc-Gourcuff era as the exception at Bordeaux, rather than the rule.

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