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Pressure on Lyon ahead of vital derby
For the first time in almost two decades, Lyon will be the underdogs when they face fierce local rivals Saint-Etienne in the Rhone derby on Saturday night.
But that does not mean that the pressure will be off Remi Garde's side when they head to the Chaudron for what is one of the biggest fixtures in the French game.
After all, missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time since 1999 is unthinkable for Lyon, but defeat in the 104th Rhone derby would be another major blow to their chances of finishing in the top three.
Garde's men are seventh in the table, four points away from Lille in third and three points behind fourth-placed Saint-Etienne.
Followers of Les Verts are rightly excited by the prospect of their side beating OL to that Champions League place and in the process finishing above their neighbours in the table for the first time since 1993.
Saint-Etienne, who are coached by former Lyon assistant coach Christophe Galtier, have not won at home to their great rivals since April 1994.
Indeed, they went 16 years without beating Lyon at all until a 1-0 victory at Stade Gerland at the beginning of last season.
"I almost have the impression that we have never lost a derby," said OL midfielder Maxime Gonalons, a sentiment likely to be shared by any Lyon fan under the age of 20.
But Lyon's outspoken president, Jean-Michel Aulas, has tried to take some of the pressure off his side by insisting that this is a derby that Saint-Etienne should win.
"Everything has been going right for Saint-Etienne, while we have been struggling away from home," he said.
"We have reason to be worried. I am not sure if our players have the necessary pride to compete with them.
"Saint-Etienne are massive favourites. This is the match of the century for them."
Elsewhere, Lille -- who lost at Lyon last weekend -- have a derby clash of their own to look forward to against northern neighbours Valenciennes, while two other contenders go head to head on Sunday when Rennes entertain Toulouse.
Meanwhile, Marseille face a must-win home game with struggling Dijon as they turn their attention back to their faltering league campaign after qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League at the expense of Inter Milan in mid-week.
OM are eight points away from third-placed Lille and have lost their last four matches in Ligue 1, all without scoring a goal.
In the battle for the title itself, last week's results suggest that it will now be a two-horse race between Paris Saint-Germain and Montpellier, with the capital club a point clear of their less-fancied, but nevertheless impressive, rivals.
Both clubs are unbeaten in 2012, and both will be expected to win away to struggling opponents on Saturday, with Montpellier travelling to Nancy, while PSG go to Caen.
Thiago Motta returns from suspension to boost a PSG side who needed a stoppage-time goal to win at Dijon last time out, while Montpellier will hope to welcome back star playmaker Younes Belhanda, who has missed the last two games due to injury.
"We are right behind PSG, so we are capable of winning the title," insisted Montpellier coach Rene Girard this week.
"Financial logic suggests that they should win the league, but it is up to us to hassle them right to the end."
In other games, Bordeaux are at home to Ajaccio, bottom club Sochaux entertain Nice, while Auxerre take on Evian and there is a Brittany derby between Lorient and Brest.
Saturday (1800GMT unless otherwise stated):
Auxerre v Evian, Bordeaux v Ajaccio, Caen v Paris Saint-Germain, Lorient v Brest, Marseille v Dijon, Nancy v Montpellier, Saint-Etienne v Lyon (2000GMT)
Sunday (1600GMT unless otherwise stated):
Rennes v Toulouse, Sochaux v Nice, Lille v Valenciennes (2000GMT)
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