Preview : Gabala v Saint Etienne – Europa League
Saint-Etienne are lying seventh in Ligue 1 after a creditable 1-1 draw against Monaco at the weekend, and will be away at Metz on Sunday. They are also in and around in the Europa League standings, as Group C sees a confused mess of trying to rank teams with the same points, as three teams have five, two the same goal difference, and two (not the same two) the same goals for.
Having drawn 1-1 away at Mainz and at home to Anderlecht, ASSE got their first win in the last round, at home to Gabala. However, it took an own goal from Ricardinho, failing to head clear a Jordan Veretout free-kick, for les Verts to take the points. With Gabala having a decent home record in their Europa history, this archetypal tricky away trip could be, well, tricky.
Gabala are top of the Azeri league, 2 points clear of Garabagh, after a 4-1 home win over Neftchi in the last round, which head coach Roman Grigorchuk called a “cracking job“. Also, Bagali Dabo is now technically the best striker in Europe with a goal every 64 minutes, with ten goals in 17 matches so far, although he missed the game at the weekend, and the match at the Geoffroy-Guichard, so reading between the lines he’s still injured. Attacking midfielder Theo Weeks (7) and Filip Ozobic (6) are putting a shift in as well, however, and on home turf may be given more license to get forward.
ASSE’s significant injury crisis that has seen some interesting combinations in defence so far this season looks to be over (stand by for someone picking up a six-to-eight-weeks knock in the Relay at the airport) as demonstrated in the draw against Monaco. However, centre back Loic Perrin got the goal for them there, so their striking issues remain. Robert Beric is top-scorer in all competitions with five, Nolan Roux has three, and Romain Hamouma two, putting him level with own goal, who also got the winner for them away at Beitar Jerusalem in qualifying.
Hamouma is still out so some spark remains lacking, but otherwise Christophe Galtier has options in all areas, which must make a nice change. The fear – for the neutral – is that he will take a safety-first approach here, backing his backline to soak up pressure and hoping to score on the counter, which could end up being a frustrating watch if the countering part of that doesn’t work out. Which, we’ll be honest, is a reasonable possibility: apart from the 2-0 win at Caen in round 10 they haven’t scored more than once against eleven men since August.
Everything augurs for a low-scoring encounter in which one goal could win it, and if Gabala get their sense of direction sorted, it could be them. The French team are favourites, naturally, but this has the feel of a match that could go badly for the visitors if they don’t take it seriously.
Squad : Ruffier, Moulin; Maisonnial – Theophile-Catherine, Lacroix, Mbengue, Pogba, Perrin, Malcuit, Yves Polomat – Pajot, Dabo, Saivet, Veretout, Selnaes – Roux, Tannane, Monnet-Paquet, Soderlund, Beric, Nordin.