FC Metz Need to Cohade or Go Home

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As promotion celebrations go, you’d be hard-pushed to find more muted: Metz had secured the final promotion slot to return to Ligue 1, but only after a disastrous night during which Le Havre overhauled a three point and six goal deficit, beating Bourg-en-Bresse 5-0, leaving Metz hanging on to a flattering 1-0 loss at Lens. Philippe Hischberger’s men were going to Ligue 1 only on goals scored and, as the coach admitted, had he been his president, he would have sacked himself! Things needed to change.

This summer, as Metz begin their sixth consecutive season in a different division to the one in which they ended the last, they do so with a new [deep breath] project for the third consecutive season. Their last Ligue 1 experience in 2014/15 was based on keeping faith with the nucleus of young players who had seen them achieve two consecutive promotions, with the addition of a couple of gambles (Venezuelan striker Juan Falcon, veteran international Florent Malouda). The gamble failed and Metz went down, thanks in part to an 18 match winless run.

For 2015/16 and the stated aim of immediate promotion, president Bérnard Serin changed tack, bringing in Portuguese director of football Carlos Freitas and Belgian ex-, future- and future-ex Charlton coach José Riga. Amidst a mess of a transfer policy, for which the only criterion seemed to be some connection to Portugal rather than any great footballing ability (viz. Amido Baldé), performances and results were poor. Riga was shipped out and replaced by Metz legend Hinschberger (who played his whole career at Metz, winning two Coupes de France) and, led by Yeni Ngbakoto – who ended the season with 12 goals and 11 assists – a run of nine wins in the last 11 matches saw Metz through to their bum-squeaky promotion.

For the new Ligue 1 campaign, the club needed to learn from the mistakes of the past two seasons, and in fact had already begun making moves behind the scenes to bring in some older, more experienced heads to mount a better challenge. This summer the club has played a blinder.

Striker Mevlut Erding, midfielder Renaud Cohade, left back Franck Signorino (returning to his first club) and the godlike Yann Jouffre, all signed in early summer – and all for free – have close to 1,000 matches’ top-flight experience between them. Late summer signings Benoit Essou-Ekotto and Milan Bisevac bring still more know-how – as well as strengthening the main area of concern for Metz: its defence. Two Ligue 2 stalwarts from last season, Brest centre back Simon Falette and Créteil midfielder Florent Mollet, have also arrived, as has the latest talent from les Grenats’ successful partnership with Senegal-based Generation Foot: the extremely highly rated winger Ismaila Sarr follows in the footsteps of Papiss Cissé, Diafra Sakho and Sadio Mané. Another winger and auxiliary striker Opa Nguette has also arrived from Valenciennes to support Erding and one of the heroes of last year’s promotion charge, Habib Diallo.

This influx of talent is well supplemented by a group of extremely talented home-grown youngsters. France under-21 goalkeeper Thomas Didillon continues to grow in stature by the match, 16-year-old wunderkind and Luxembourg international Vincent Thill turned down the millions offered by Bayern Munich to join the professional ranks, and Nicolas Basin joins Mathieu Udol as another young left back from whom much is expected in the future.

Metz have also managed to dégraisse their squad, ridding themselves of a lot of the dross brought in last year. The only major departures are two true Messins, Coupe Gambardella winners Romain Métanire and Ngbakoto, who has moved to QPR.

The early signs, on the face of it, are positive. Three matches, two wins and a defeat at PSG (which doesn’t really count). The veterans – particularly Cohade – are settling in well, Didillon is excelling, Sarr looks like a game-changer when he comes on and the balance between young and old seems to be working well.

Not everything is perfect: both of Metz’s wins – 3-2 against Lille and particularly 2-0 against Angers – were not entirely deserved on the balance of play. And the Angers match was les Grenats’ only clean sheet, friendlies included, since last season (even during the international break, the team conceded three against a Luxembourger outfit). The attack doesn’t look deadly and four of the team’s five goals have come from dead ball situations. Off the field there has been a little controversy too, with the club criticised for accepting, as new shirt sponsors, Chad – one of the poorest countries in the world (it is unclear whether it is the state itself that has paid for the deal).

However, after the ups and downs of the last few years, Metz are after stability, however they achieve it and however much luck is needed. Seventeenth place and the guarantee of Ligue 1 safety is all that Hinschberger’s men are after for this season. It won’t be easy but the squad at the St Symphorien looks well capable of achieving it and, with some of the talent at hand, it may even be fun.

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