27 November 2009 ~ After making the worst start ever to a French First Division season, Grenoble are now intent on setting another record. Their run of straight defeats ended at 11 and now their aim is to stage one of the most remarkable escapes in history by evading relegation. Grenoble finished in a creditable 13th place on their return to the top flight after a 45-year absence last season. Most observers expected the side to find life more difficult during the so-called difficult second season, but few predicted the dramatic slump that has left them in such a perilous position.
There was nothing unusual in losing 2-0 at home to Marseille on the opening day but consecutive defeats against Boulogne and Lens – the sort of sides Grenoble would expect to take points off – in their next two games suggested this was going to be a long, hard season. The defeats kept coming. They were 3-0 down to Rennes after 20 minutes (eventually losing 4-0) and threw away what seemed certain to be their first victory against Nancy on October 24 when a spectacular David Jemmali own goal and foolishly conceded penalty turned a 1-0 lead with 17 minutes to go into a 2-1 defeat.
Finally, the rot stopped with a 0-0 draw at Monaco on November 7 followed by a 1-1 draw at home to illustrious neighbours Lyon last weekend. Throughout their pointless run, the club's owners, a Japanese multinational company called Index Corporation, never called coach Mecha Bazdarevic's position into question and they're hoping that their backing of him will give the club the self-belief to invoke a miraculous recovery. This week the company pledged to continue to invest in the club no matter what division the team is playing in next season.
Aside from the odd moment of indiscipline, the players have stood squarely behind Bazdarevic, a 49-year-old Bosnian who played for Sochaux and Nîmes in the 1980s and 1990s and has coached in France for most of the past decade. Talented teenage winger Sofiane Feghouli, reportedly a transfer target for Manchester United, Marseille and Atlético Madrid, got a one-match suspension for making a rude gesture at his own supporters after they booed him during a game against Auxerre (Grenoble lost, of course) in September. General manager Pierre Wantiez called Feghouli "a little bugger" but a serious knee injury ruled out the young winger shortly afterwards and the issue died down.
The man the side really cannot afford to be without is striker Daniel Ljuboja, or "Mr 83 per cent" as the French press call him, as he's scored five of the team's six goals in 13 league games. Bazdarevic surprised many by signing the 32-year-old Serbia international striker, who's never scored ten goals in a single top-flight season and has stumbled around unsuccessfully in the French and German leagues in recent years. But Ljuboja, who came off the bench to score the late equaliser against Lyon last weekend, has risen to the challenge. The sight of his dyed-blond hair streaking away in celebration has been one of the season's few uplifting moments.
This weekend, Grenoble travel to face fourth-placed Lorient. While 22 points separate the sides the gap that really matters to Grenoble is the 13 points that divide them from Lens, in 17th place, synonymous with safety. It's almost impossible to believe that they can make up the ground in the season's 25 remaining games. But those two draws going into Saturday night's game have given them hope. James Eastham