There was a much better than usual crowd in the stand at Stade de Balmont when we arrived for the match between Lyon Duchere, my adopted French team, and Dunkerque. Actually, that’s not true. There was absolutely nobody in the stand when we arrived. But that was before we discovered that some idiot, who relies on an English-time site for such information, had made a mistake over the kick-off time. When we arrived for the match the second time there was indeed a decent crowd, we couldn’t even get the posh padded seats in the central area, There was music playing, cheerleaders for the emergence of the two teams onto the pitch, and an atmosphere that reflected the importance of the game for both sides.
Just in case anyone didn’t read the preview, or could somehow be unaware how things stand in France’s third division, Duchere went into the game in fourth place, two points behind Dunkerque in second (and Chateauroux in third, with Quevilly Rouen six points clear at the top). Four games left, top two automatically promoted, third place goes into a play-off with the team finishing third-bottom in Ligue 2. Given the situation, it seemed fairly apparent that Duchere would need to win to keep alive their hopes of promotion, in their first season at this level, while Dunkerque could be reasonably content with a point.
As the teams lined up for the start it was evident that Dunkerque enjoyed a height (and weight) advantage over Duchere, especially as there was no sign of the big centre-forward I remember from a match earlier in the season (things are improving but there are no programmes yet and I don’t know the names of any of the players). No matter, I’d imagine that Duchere are used to that.
The opening minutes were not surprisingly rather cagy as the two teams tested each other out. But it wasn’t long before Dunkerque gained the upper hand. A couple of crosses into the box had Duchere’s normally composed defence rather flustered, while it was soon apparent that in their small but ridiculously fast left-winger Dunkerque had a dangerous weapon, a touch of the Rommadahl about him. He got clear once and was tugged back, the referee producing the first yellow card inside the opening 10 minutes. You worried for the Duchere full-back for the rest of the game, knowing that the guy could do him for pace at will (to be fair he would have done the same to anyone else on the pitch) and that a similar offence would see him dismissed. The resulting free kick from the edge of the area caused fresh mayhem as a Dunkerque forward was first to it only to head over.
Duchere had weapons of their own, including an effective right-sided midfielder, who seemed to have licence to roam and who manged to link the play well. From what I’ve seen this season Duchere don’t tend to dominate teams, don’t look especially good from set-pieces, and struggle to break down massed defences. But from breakdowns in open play they counter-attack quickly and with numbers. And it was from such a situation that after 12 minutes completely against the run of play they opened the scoring. Dunkerque were moving forward in Duchere’s half when the midfielder managed to intercept a pass and as Dunkerque’s defenders were moving forward it broke beautifully for a Duchere forward just onside going in the opposite direction. Suddenly he was in the clear, a one-on-one but with plenty of distance to travel and time to think about it. The pressure didn’t get to him. As the keeper came out to the edge of his area the forward drilled it past him into the net. By its standards, the Stade de Balmont went crazy.
That goal stung Dunkerque and for the next 15 or so minutes they truly pummelled La Duche. Balls came into the box from both sides. One sitter was missed, another couple of headers went close, the Duchere keeper pulled off a couple of decent saves, there were some desperate blocks, the referee gave Dunkerque some questionable free kicks outside the box but denied them what looked to me a nailed-on penalty as a forward was bundled over, the defender getting nowhere near the ball, and one low cross already going past the keeper into the net was turned in by a Dunkerque forward in an offside position. In addition Duchere had to reorganise as an injury led to a substitution, with the rangy centre-forward I remembered entering the fray.
However, the game, as they say, is about putting the white, round thing into the stringy cage thing and Dunkerque didn’t manage that. Duchere rode out the storm, their defence seemed to get a better grip, and in the final stages of the first half they managed to create one or two moments of their own, including a decent shout for a penalty as their guy was about to shoot only for the defender to take him and the ball. Just which came first was hard to tell.
At the break Duchere were undoubtedly fortunate to be ahead. You felt that they’d need to score again if they were to win the game. And they seemed to tempt fate a little during the break by announcing that as things stood Duchere had moved into second place in the league, with Chateauroux not winning in their game away at lowly Epinal. I couldn’t help thinking about us at Old Trafford singing ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ at half-time after Peter Schmeichel had been sent off; they didn’t then – and they didn’t this time around.
Dunkerque kicked off, moved the ball forward down the left, their pacy winger cut inside and passed into the box, their forward shot on the turn, and with a deflection from a defender it looped over a wrong-footed keeper. Caught cold indeed.
In one moment it was a different game. But if Duchere – and the crowd – were subdued, Dunkerque really failed to take advantage of the situation. In truth the Duchere substitution was now working to their advantage as the centre-forward was working hard, held the ball up well, and generally provided an out ball than they had before. Perhaps Dunkerque were too happy with a point, perhaps they were confident of nicking another before the game ended.
The next 30 minutes saw both teams create half-chances but nothing decisive, with neither side dominating. The Dunkerque keeper did pull off a blinding save to turn a fierce drive over the bar, while Duchere were just about managing to keep the speedy winger under control; he did once pick up the ball with space all around, just inside the Duchere half, and looked set to push it past the back four and run onto it, only to be alerted to a Duchere player on the ground injured. The manner in which he sportingly kicked the ball into touch reflected how he felt about having to pass up the opportunity.
Duchere were getting some joy down the flanks and with 15 minutes left on the clock they broke the deadlock. A cross from the left went over defenders and attackers around the penalty spot but found the Duchere right-sided midfielder just inside the area. He brought it down and then hit it low and true beyond a diving keeper into the far corner. The stand erupted again and this time all the bench were out to celebrate.
Now the question was whether Duchere would get a nose-bleed, with Dunkerque having no option but to go for it (and a double-substitution made plain the intent). Perhaps the game’s decisive moment came not long after as a Dunkerque shot across a crowded area was headed for inside the far post, only for the Duchere keeper to get down superbly and turn it around the post. Because with about 10 minutes left thoughts of a nervous final period were greatly eased as Duchere extended their lead. Of course Dunkerque pressing forward left spaces and a break saw three Duchere players bear down on goal. They kept their cool, exchanged passes and eventually delivered another well-placed shot that gave the keeper no chance. The enormous sense of relief sparked huge celebrations on and off the pitch, surely the game was won.
All that was left to do was run down the clock, which Duchere managed successfully. Indeed, into three minutes of stoppage time, with most of the Dunkerque team in the Duchere half, a long ball out found the centre-forward with a long run-in on goal and a defender on his heels. It was like watching Leaburn in action, never did the ball seem really under control. But he kept going, the defender obligingly slipped over and he rounded the keeper and put the ball into an empty net. Cue pandemonium. By the time all had settled there was only time for the kick-off before the ref brought proceedings to a close. 4-1 to Duchere and a deserved standing ovation.
The scoreline for sure flattered Duchere. But they’d taken their chances very well and, while riding their luck at the other end, had managed to limit Dunkerque’s chances after the very trying period in the first half. They were worthy winners.
There was no post-match announcement of Duchere’s standing in the league, which told its own story. Unfortunately Chateauroux scored twice in the second half without reply, so Duchere moved up to third, not second, still two behind Chateauroux. It probably doesn’t matter for Duchere but there was a surprise result today as top-of-the-table Quevilly Rouen lost 0-2 at home to Marseille Consolat, which means that they are now only three points clear of Chateauroux (and five of Duchere).
Three games to go – and there are many permutations, especially as the round after next will see Duchere host Chateauroux and the same day Quevilly Rouen at home to Dunkerque. If Duchere win their final three games, they will be automatically promoted. But if Chateauroux avoid defeat at Duchere and win their other two, they will at least get second place; Duchere may just have to win all their remaining games if they are not to miss out even for the play-off position. Quevilly Rouen will get one of the two top spots if they can take at least five points from their final three games, but again one of these is against Dunkerque, who aren’t out of it yet. And you can’t ignore Paris FC, currently fifth, two points behind Duchere, four behind Chateauroux, but on a strong run of form and three final games against teams around the bottom of the league (they must be the most boring team in the league to watch, having scored 27 goals in 31 games and conceded just 17).
So it’s still a daunting task for Duchere to secure promotion to France’s second division at the first time of asking. But last night they gave themselves a chance, and it’s arguably in their own hands. If they can win away at mid-table Chambly in the next round, that home game against Chateauroux is going to be a corker.