"I want to play a final against Évian [Thonon Gaillard FC] on the last day of the season," said coach Hervé Renard after taking over as FC Sochaux-Montbéliard coach in October, and after a 2-1 win at Stade Rennais FC on Saturday, his wish has come true.
In the relegation zone for most of the season, Sochaux looked to be on the verge of going down during their trip to Brittany at the weekend. With the scores level at 1-1 13 minutes from time, the visitors were set to join AC Ajaccio and Valenciennes FC in dropping to Ligue 2 – but that all changed in an instant as Emmanuel Mayuka's close-range header gave Renard's side the points and the right to dream of one of the greatest escapes in recent years.
Évian – who won 2-0 at home to OGC Nice at the weekend – now visit a sold-out Stade Bonal on Saturday night needing to avoid defeat to end their hosts' stay in the top division, where Sochaux have spent a French record 66 seasons overall. For Renard – who won the 2012 CAF Africa Cup of Nations with Mayuka's Zambia – reaching the final day with something still to play for is a significant achievement.
"They have been playing for pride for the last four of five months," said Renard, who took over from Éric Hély as coach with his side vying with Ajaccio to avoid bottom spot. "We were sat eight points adrift of safety six weeks ago. Sure, there was a bit of disbelief in me, but the squad kept their drive and faith in their destiny, and on Saturday we did what we had to do to win."
Sochaux are now on a seven-game unbeaten run but must win to complete their Lazarus act. "We have no choice but win," added Renard. "We know how hard is to decide matters, but we still have to do it. If we keep playing like we have in the last few games, we can make it."
The buoyant Renard, 45, has been given plenty of credit for digging Sochaux out of their hole, with Jordan Ayew – a winter loan signing from Olympique de Marseille – scoring five goals, including two in his last two games. On 1 February, after a win against FC Nantes, Ayew wept, with the pressure, tiredness and emotion of Sochaux's campaign coming to the surface. "The coach put his faith in me, and I have to pay him back," the 22-year-old said. "I'm lucky to have him as coach."
A genuine leader, Renard has been canny in taking the spotlight, engaging in mind games with his opponents, and keeping the pressure off his players. On Saturday, however, he is up against the similarly charismatic Pascal Dupraz, who may be a tougher nut to crack. "Don't forget that we're one point clear," Dupraz said on Saturday. "You don't know the history of our club. I do. I know what we're made of. I know we'll do it." The final countdown has begun.
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