Allez Les Rouges et Noirs!
Stade Rennais is turning heads in France's first division
Would it surprise you to learn that the team with the longest unbeaten streak currently in European club soccer doesn't call Manchester, Milan or Barcelona home?
Stade Rennais isn't one of the game's glamour sides, nor has it enjoyed a rich history of success in European competition. But what the team from Brittany in the northwest of France does have is the rest of the continent standing up and taking notice.
Rennais was not expected to challenge for the Ligue Un (French first division) title this year, so when the Brittany club suffered a 1-0 loss to Grenoble last August in the second week of the season, it was hardly a surprise.
What followed was.
18-game unbeaten run
Last Saturday, Rennais exacted a small measure of revenge on Grenoble with a 1-0 victory before their fans at the Stade de la Route-de-Lorient, a result that allowed Les Rouges et Noirs (the Red and Blacks) to extend their club-record unbeaten run to 18 matches.
After a sixth-place finish last season, 21 points behind seven-time defending champion Olympique Lyon, Rennais now finds itself just two points behind Lyon headed into this weekend's slate of games.
It's an amazing turnaround for a team that before this season never went more than 11 league games without a defeat and who for the first time in its history finds itself within two points of first place, 20 matches into the season.
Still, Rennais manager Guy Lacombe is not getting ahead of himself and knows winning the first league championship in team history is a tall order.
"Our success to this point doesn't mean anything," Lacombe recently told reporters. "But we are working well … and we want to continue enjoying matching the big guns as we are doing at the moment. With 37 points so far, we have a big challenge ahead of us."
Lacombe can take a great deal of credit for Rennais's success. Hired as the club's manager in December 2007 following a two-year stint in charge of Paris St-Germain, Lacombe has assembled a hard-working, athletic and technically talented side full of fighting spirit.
With just 13 goals conceded in 20 games, Rennais boasts the best defensive record in the French first division, and is a tribute to Lacombe's team building.
Swedish captain Peter Hansson and Senegalese international Kader Mangane, brought to Rennais by Lacombe last summer, have formed the most intimidating and effective central defensive pairing in France - Hansson supplying the style with his calm reading of the game, Mangane the brute force with his imposing six-foot-three-inch frame.
American left-back Carlos Bocanegra, another one of Lacombe's summer purchases, has found new life in France after being released by the English Premier League's Fulham, and right-back Rod Fanni has flourished under Lacombe, earning a spot on the French national team roster on the strength of his consistently brilliant performances for Rennais.
Veteran goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez was another smart pickup by Lacombe. Douchez, formerly of Toulouse, has cut an imposing figure between the posts this season, registering an impressive 11 clean sheets and thwarting the French league's top forwards with his lightning-quick reflexes and ability to make athletic saves.
With 25 goals in 20 games, Rennais is the fifth-best offensive side in Ligue Un, an impressive feat considering it doesn't have what you would call a world-class striker. Instead, the scoring is equally shared by French forwards Mickael Pagis and Jimmy Briand (11 goals between them), and Senegalese striker Moussa Sow (five goals), who at age 22, is considered one of the hottest young prospects in the French league.
The midfield is a solid balance of defensive muscle (Cameroonian international Stephane M'Bia), technical ability (Olivier Thomert and Jerome Leroy), and experience (Bruno Cheyrou). The depth of talent in the team's midfield is so deep that former Arsenal great Sylvain Wiltord sat on the bench through the first half of the season (he only made six substitute appearances) and was loaned to Olympique Marseille this past week for the remainder of the campaign.
Teams from England have coming knocking, too. Newcastle United has lodged a transfer bid for M'Bia, touted as the next Claude Makelele, in an attempt to lure him to England, while fellow Premiership side Everton have also made enquiries about the Cameroonian.
It all bodes well for the team from Brittany who, with any luck, could dislodge Lyon as champions of France by season's end and instil some intrigue back into Ligue Un with an unprecedented title run.