After 73 league appearances in the white of Leeds United fans-favourite Max Gradel moved to France this summer, signing for Ligue 1 giants Saint-Etienne. Andrew Gibney from French Football Weekly brings us up to date with how the Ivorian has settled in his first season across the channel.
During the 1970’s Saint-Etienne were easily one of France’s most dominant sides. In that decade alone they lifted Le Championnat four times, and lost to Bayern Munich in the 1976 European Cup final. For a team that has such a strong European legacy only two appearances in the UEFA in 30 years just isn’t good enough for some of the best fans in France.
With six games to go in the French season it was former Leeds United star Max Gradel that made the rally cry to his teammates. Giving them the challenge to go win the last six games which would hopefully see them finish 4th and qualify for the Europa League. Gradel was the ideal man to give the inspirational speech, he was Man of the Match in the 2-1 win over Brest, opening the scoring from the penalty spot and helping his side snap a three game run without a win.
That was Gradel’s second goal in three games and the Ivorian has been easily one of Saint-Etienne’s best players in 2012. As is with all rally cries, actions speak louder than words and with a tricky trip away to Normandy to face Caen all eyes were on Gradel to provide the spark, he didn’t disappoint. Playing in their normal 4-2-3-1 formation Gradel would start on the right behind top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Constantly switching positions the former Leeds hero would drift from right to left looking to find the space in behind the Caen midfield.
It was impossible for the struggling Caen defence to keep tabs on the forward and it wasn’t long until Saint-Etienne opened the scoring. Aubameyang broke down the left and played a superb low ball across the goal, with Gradel ready to pounce at the back post left-back Aurelien Montaroup panicked and put the ball in his own net.
Aubameyang had already made it 2-0 when Gradel got himself on the score sheet, Aubameyang’s shot was fumbled by the Caen keep and Gradel was in the right place at the right time to knock the ball home. Then it was game over when Gradel turned provider, picking up a loose ball in the box he showed great presence of mind and calmness on the ball, cheekily lifting the ball over the defence for Aubameyang to head home his second of the game and secure an excellent away win for Les Verts.
This season Gradel has made 15 starts and come off the bench nine times for Christoph Galtier’s side, he would have played much more but for the call-up for the African Cup of Nations in January. A seven minute cameo as Gradel made his debut against Lille back in September was shadowed by Englishman Joe Cole’s debut for the French Champions.
His third full game would come against newly promoted AC Ajaccio in November. In a 3-1 win Gradel was voted Man of the Match and scored his first goal for the club after seven minutes, again in the right place at the right time, applying the finish with his knee and then celebrating in front of the home kop. The green angels had themselves a new hero to celebrate.
Then in January Saint-Etienne were dealt a huge blow when they had to cope without both Gradel and Aubameyang for four games during the African Cup of Nations. Probably the biggest compliment you can give Gradel is that he played beside Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Gervinho and looked the genuine article.
Against the Sudan and Burkina Faso it was Gradel that came on to provide Les Éléphants with a much needed spark. He was then rewarded with a start against Angola, getting the nod ahead of Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou, impressing in the win over Equatorial Guinea Gradel was unlucky not to play in the semi-final win over Mali but did make an appearance in the final, scoring in the penalty shoot-out as the Ivory Coast would eventually lose out to Zambia.
Back in France Gradel scored the last goal in a 4-0 win over fellow European football hopefuls Rennes. Once again his instincts proved vital and his excellent positioning meant he could turn in the rebound as Rennes ‘keeper Benoit Costil fumbled Bakary Sako’s shot.
With five games to go this season Saint-Etienne sit sixth, only three points behind Lyon who occupy the last Europa League spot. Fifth place could be good enough if Lyon goes on to win this weekend’s Coupe de France final against third division side US Quevilly. However it would top off a great season if they could finish fourth, and finish above hated rivals Lyon.
Gradel has played 10 of Saint-Etienne’s 14 games since his return from the African Cup of Nations and in 2012 he has provided three goals and an assist. The more he plays the more you can see his confidence increase within the side. In their free-flowing system Gradel is allowed to move all across the pitch and with his blistering pace, low centre of gravity and superb right-foot he really has made an impression of the Les Verts fans this season.
If Les Verts are to return to the European stage they need Gradel at his best inspiring his teammates to victory. If the Ivorian can fire his side into the Europa League it would surely justify making the decision to leave England and start the new chapter of his career in France.
Andrew Gibney is the editor of French Football Weekly an English language website dedicated to the world of French Football.Make sure to follow them on twitter and visit the website – http://frenchfootballweekly.