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Saint-Etienne making strong case for Champions League bid

January 15, 2015

PARIS (AP) — In some ways, Saint-Etienne’s excellent first half of the French league season can be attributed to goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier’s spectacular performances.

“There was an octopus (on the pitch) and he stretched out its tentacles,” Reims manager Jean-Luc Vasseur summed up after Ruffier repeatedly denied his players’ efforts in a 2-1 home loss to Les Verts last weekend.

Ruffier, who was part of the France team for the World Cup in Brazil this summer after being called up as a cover for the injured Steve Mandanda, has been the league’s best keeper so far this season.

His stats speak for themselves: in 20 matches, Ruffier conceded just 13 goals and was able to keep 12 clean sheets. In Europe’s other major leagues, only Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has done better.

It remains to be seen whether Ruffier’s performances will help him dislodge Steve Mandanda and Hugo Lloris in France’s goalkeeper pecking order. In any case, they have helped Saint-Etienne to third place in the standings, just three points behind bitter rival and leader Lyon.

“Our goal in 2015 will be to have a second half to the season up to the standard of what we did in the first half,” Saint-Etienne coach Christophe Galtier said ahead of Sunday’s trip to Rennes, brushing away talk of Champions league qualification.

Saint-Etienne came close to qualifying for Europe’s biggest competition two seasons ago but ran out of gas and ended fifth.

Galtier has also been given an injury headache after stalwart midfielder Renaud Cohade ruptured the cruciate ligament in his right knee during a 1-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the League Cup midweek. Cohade will undergo surgery and is likely to miss the remainder of the season, with Galtier now expected to bring in a replacement during the January’s transfer window.

Under pressure after claiming only one point in its last three league matches, fourth-placed PSG hosts struggling Evian while Marseille plays Guingamp looking to bounce back after two consecutive losses in all competition. Here are some other things to watch in the French league:

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REFEREES’ ANGER

French referees are fed up with the abuse they receive during league games.

After fans threw objects at match officials during PSG’s 1-0 win at Saint-Etienne in the League Cup, prompting referee Said Ennjimi to take the teams off the field as a precautionary measure, referee’s union SAFE is condemning “the poisonous atmosphere” surrounding matches in France.

The union said the “unacceptable” incidents at Saint-Etienne “are unfortunately tirelessly repeating themselves” and is asking all players, staff and officials to act more responsibly by respecting referees, decisions.

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CAVANI AND LAVEZZI BACK WITH PSG

PSG’s attacking duo Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani have been reintegrated into Laurent Blanc’s side and are expected to take part in Sunday’s game against Evian.

The South-American players were sanctioned by the club earlier this month after failing to show up at a training camp in Morocco during the Christmas break. They have not been selected for the team’s last three matches but Blanc said it’s time for them to return to action, although the French manager did not mention whether they will be named in his starting XI.

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LYON WORRIED ABOUT AMIENS PITCH

Back at the top of the league, seven-time champion Lyon has raised concerns about the conditions of Saturday’s away game against Lens, which will be held in Amiens. Lens is playing its home matches either at the Stade de France or in Amiens’ Stade de la Licorne because of refurbishment work at its home ground.

With difficult weather expected in the area over the weekend and a third-division game set to take place on the same deteriorated turf on the eve of Lyon’s trip to Amiens, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas has asked football authorities to reverse the order of the games. Lyon’s main argument is that its game is set to be broadcast and that a last-minute cancellation would cost the league money.

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