Sochaux had won just twice all season and were nine points from safety, heading straight for relegation, but three little words have helped Hervé Renard's side keep alive their hopes of a miraculous escape.
'Never Give Up' says the phrase scrawled in English in the home dressing room at the Stade Bonal. When Renard wrote it they might as well have given up, so desperate was their situation at the foot of Ligue 1, but his words have remained there over the course of a fine run of results which continued on Sunday when Paris Saint-Germain had to make do with a 1-1 draw in eastern France.
PSG knew a win would secure their second consecutive title, but the fact they had to settle for a point should come as no great surprise. While their league form has dipped since their Champions League exit, Sochaux have not lost at home in more than three months, winning five and drawing two - against Marseille and now PSG - of seven games.
On Sunday, a terrific Edinson Cavani goal put Paris in front at half-time, but Sochaux produced an admirable recovery in the second half and equalised courtesy of a Thiago Silva own-goal. For Sochaux, the difference compared to their performance in losing 5-0 to the same opponents at the Parc des Princes in December was striking, and Renard said: "We did today what we have been doing for weeks, and that is a source of satisfaction, even if we know that PSG were not at 100 percent."
Renard, the white-shirt wearing mastermind of Zambia's 2012 Africa Cup of Nations triumph, appeared to have made a mistake when he accepted a return to his native country last autumn, and Sochaux looked dead and buried at Christmas. However, if the Ligue 1 season started at the end of January, his team would be sixth.
The turnaround has been striking. Sochaux have lost just three of their last 14 games, and those defeats have come away to Lille, Monaco and Saint-Etienne, the trio of clubs who sit immediately behind PSG at the top of the table. At home, they are proving a match for anybody. Their away form had been their true Achilles heel, but they finally recorded their first win on their travels this season when they beat Reims 1-0 last weekend.
Of his side's hopes of beating the drop, Renard said on Sunday: "I believe as much as I did before,” but for all that their performance against the champions in waiting was uplifting, the fact is that Sochaux are further from safety than they were a week ago, the gap growing from two points to four. That is because Guingamp won on Saturday, beating Valenciennes 1-0.
Survival is not in Sochaux's hands, although they have two home games still to come, against Nice and 17th-placed Evian. They also have a trip in two weeks to Rennes, who themselves are not safe yet. "If we reproduce the same level of performance in our last three matches, we could get three wins," says goalkeeper Yohann Pelé, and that could be enough to drag them above one of Evian, Guingamp or Rennes.
The return of Pelé to the top level proves exactly why no footballer should ever give up. Once on the fringes of the French national team, he suffered a pulmonary embolism - a potentially fatal blockage of a lung artery - while with Toulouse in 2010 and hadn't played at the top level in more than three years when Sochaux took him on trial in January.
He was soon signed up to be their third-choice goalkeeper, but he was given his debut against Lille in early February and has not looked back since. With the 31-year-old between the posts, Renard's Zambian favourites Stoppila Sunzu and Nathan Sinkala proving excellent signings, and Sébastien Corchia returning to the club after an aborted January move to Lille (as detailed in this blog in February), there is a new-found balance to the team and hope has come with that.
Seeing Sochaux struggle is nothing new - they have required a result on the final day to secure survival in each of the last two campaigns. This time there is a lot of work still to be done and they may just fall short. Renard is likely to leave in the summer, but if he can keep them up for a record 67th top-flight campaign, he will have fulfilled his objective.
- Sports & Recreation
- Hervé Renard