Imagine taking your mark at the start of an Olympic 100 meters final, just allowing yourself a half-second to glance down the line at your competitors ... and you see Usain Bolt grinning at you. This was, for much of their professional history, the proposition facing Paris Saint-Germain Féminine, their Bolt taking the shape of Lyon Féminin.
It's easy to think of the main rivalries both men's teams have in Ligue 1, with PSG-Marseille in Le Classique and Lyon vs. Saint-Etienne in the Rhône-Alpes Derby. But on the women's side, the Le Classique Féminin is contested between PSG and OL.
Although, Lyon and PSG are indisputably the two best teams in Division 1 Féminine, the silverware almost always ends up at the Parc OL, leaving the trophy cabinet in Paris uncomfortably bereft. Since their ascent to the top of the table in 2006-2007, Lyon have only been denied the title once: last season, by PSG. Yet for all their ability, it was only Les Parisiennes' fourth piece of silverware in their 51-year history and took place next to two Coupe de France trophies and a Division 2 title, which was won two decades prior.
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Just as Lyon -- who beat Barcelona 3-1 last Saturday for their record eighth Champions League crown -- benefited from becoming part of Jean-Michel Aulas' outfit in 2004 (when they were formerly FC Lyon), PSG have grown in stature in France and Europe thanks to the investment of Qatar Sports Investments (QSI). However, it's not simply that Lyon had the head start. Aulas' ideas around professionalisation and treating the women's selection of OL with the same respect afforded the men's side managed to keep most teams in their dust.
Lyon have very much the blueprint for women's pro teams across Europe, not just France -- a blueprint PSG have too oft ignored.
Offering not just professional salaries, but training facilities -- all the things male players would take for granted and that continue to be the rarity across the women's game -- Lyon have been able to attract some of the best players in the world. The reasons for their staggering success have arguably been simple and summed up with one word: investment. Yet it's not simply about pouring money in; at Lyon it's been about getting the right culture for success, about tapping into a ruthless mentality that keeps players giving 100% regardless of score or opposition. For all this success, it has only further hammered home the polarisation in the French league and too often, Lyon are denied the full respect for their ability from those outside of France.
As Lyon have led the way, PSG have chased after, growing their own team and firmly establishing themselves as the second-best in France, but as said, their victories over Lyon have been few and far between. There are various factors involved, and too often, PSG have not been able to withstand the pressure of fighting for the top spot. PSG have faltered against a lower-ranked team while Lyon have steamrolled the same opposition, or Les Parisennes have simply come undone against the might of OL when they've faced off.
PSG also have frequently seen some of their better players opt for that greener, lusher, more silverware-laden grass in Lyon, making it all the harder to chase down the pack leaders. This was somewhat a sore spot for former PSG goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek who, when approached by Lyon, not only turned down the offer, but spoke about being disgusted by seeing so many of her teammates make the switch and disrespecting the Parisian club in the process.
Despite the France women's national team having players from both clubs, there is a clear animosity between the two sides and there are undercurrents of that dislike when they clash, with Lyon players happy to stoke any rivalry and needle the side they so frequently better. Owing to their regular ding-dongs, there has long been unconfirmed rumours of ructions in the French squad across the PSG-OL divide, that at the very least, any manager of Les Bleues would have to be mindful of when cultivating a stable environment for this summer's Euros and beyond.
For PSG, simply getting over the mental hurdle of beating Lyon, as they did twice last season -- once in the league and once in the Champions League, both enough to deny OL trophies -- is a sizable step forward. However, with three PSG players leaving for Lyon at the end of the 2021-22 campaign, as well as another seven moving on, the capital club continues to struggle with the longer term or bigger picture, something no one could accuse Lyon of being guilty of.
There is the argument that neither team has been at their very best this year -- but as Lyon demonstrated in their win over Barcelona by playing some of their best football to date, it's clear they have at least ironed all all those wrinkles out. For both, there have been adjustments in getting used to their new coaches, which has involved some trial and error. As mentioned, PSG have had to deal with a sizable player turnover and both teams have looked to integrate newer signings, needing time to find new rhythms with each other.
Les Parisiennes have additionally had to deal with the fallout from the Kheira Hamraoui attack and the potential ructions that has caused, not least with reports of a training ground scuffle ahead of their Champions League semifinal first leg against OL surfacing just before the two met in Lyon. There was also the curiosity of the initial story coming out just before the two squared off for the first time in the league this season -- a comprehensive 6-1 win for OL against a clearly unsettled PSG. But the off the pitch distractions have refused to desist for the team from the capital and at the start of this week, as Lyon were still basking in their eighth European title, reports began to emerge about inappropriate behaviour from PSG coach Didier Ollé-Nicolle.
Not to take away from the serious nature of the allegations levied against Ollé-Nicolle (who has since been suspended) but once again, PSG seems to be tearing itself apart from the inside on the eve of another meeting with Lyon. Five points adrift with just two games left to play in the league this season and fresh memories of two losses in the Champions League semis to Lyon in their mind, and now without Ollé-Nicolle, the task of halting OL is a Herculean one for PSG. The two clubs have been wrestling meeting after meeting, season after season, with one regular victor. Even an unlikely win for PSG on Sunday would likely only provide a pause for Lyon on their road to a 15th French title.
For Les Fenottes, confirming the title at the home of their biggest rivals would be the cherry on top of their domestic sundae, a little extra payback for PSG dumping them out of the Coupe de France.