By Andy Ferguson

After 12 league games this season France’s fallen giant Saint-Etienne have leapt towards the top of  Ligue 1 and are looking increasingly likely to challenge for a Champions League place with every passing week.

Arguably the nation’s most successful side, Saint-Etienne achieved most of its glory in the 1960’s and 70’s. This era brought ten league titles, with stellar names such as Jacques Santini and Michel Platini representing Les Verts at the peak of their power.

In recent times the club has failed to recreate the dizzy heights of yesteryear, languishing nearer the lower echelons of Ligue 1 and yo-yoing between France’s top two tiers.

However, a seventh placed finish last season drew many positives. Christophe Galtier’s side, blessed with a talented mixture of experienced campaigners and exciting youngsters, were noted for their tremendous speed and relentless ability on the counter- attack. Many considered their respectful finish to be a stepping stone to greater things in 2012/13.

Despite a stuttering start of three defeats in their first five matches, Galtier’s side are unbeaten in their last nine games in all competitions. The highlight of their impressive run saw Les Verts shock big-spending Paris Saint-Germain with a 2-1 victory at the Parc des Princes. Their fine form now finds ASSE sitting in fourth place, only two points behind the leaders from the capital.

The catalyst behind Saint-Etienne’s success this season has been Galtier’s faith in his side’s free-flowing attacking play. Les Verts have put three or more goals past opponents four times this campaign and have only failed to score twice.

The key behind Les Verts’ goalscoring is the blistering form of forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The 23-year old Gabonese international has continued to prove that he is one of the brightest talents in France, adding eight goals to the 16 he amassed in the previous campaign. The winger-turned-striker has benefitted immensely from Galtier building the side around him.

At times last season, Saint-Etienne’s over-reliance on ‘Auba’ cost them vital points. However, this problem seems to be shored up in the current campaign by the intelligent Galtier. The free transfer of striker Brandao from Marseille provides les Stephanois with a new dimension up front. Originally brought in as backup, the powerful Brazilian offers a greater aerial threat and has worked well with Aubameyang, chipping in with three goals and an assist in nine matches so far.

The manager’s overhaul has seen last year’s use of fast-paced wingers now deemed as the side’s plan B. Thanks to astute tactical changes and clever moves in the transfer market, goals and assists are flowing from all areas of the pitch.

Creative midfielder Romain Hamouma was a shrewd buy at €4 million, chipping in with three goals since his arrival from relegated Caen. The fact that the 25-year-old chose to move to Les Verts ahead of Lyon and Marseille is testament to the club’s growing vision. Hamouma has thrived at his new team, becoming a star in Ligue 1 this year, having been given a free role in attacking midfield.

Another fine piece of business was the recruitment of Renaud Cohade on a free transfer from Valenciennes. Playing in a deeper role, Cohade’s vision has gifted his side three goals and three assists in the 12 games he has featured, providing Aubameyang with an excellent link from central midfield.

Where goals were hard to come by last season, it is very much the opposite this year. ASSE have netted a stunning 21 times so far, the second highest in Ligue 1 behind Valenciennes and almost half their total for the 2011/12 campaign.

One potential flaw could be directed towards the squad’s inconsistent defensive selections, with captain Loic Perrin playing the majority of the season at centre-back. Perrin, who is notoriously deployed as a midfielder or full-back, has been the only ever-present in eight variations of Les Verts back line so far this campaign.

However, the changes seem to have had little effect on results as Saint-Etienne have only conceded eight goals from their opening 12 games, equalling PSG as the best defensive record in the league.

The progression this season has been evident for Galtier’s men, but December’s line of fixtures could well define their campaign. Tough encounters with Lyon, Bordeaux, Lorient and Marseille lie in wait after a Coupe de la Ligue quarter final tie with PSG at the end of November. It certainly cannot be argued that enthralling times lie ahead for the men in green.

Exciting and refreshing to watch going forward, yet defensively sound, Saint-Etienne have been a tremendous advert for Ligue 1 this season. It has been five long years since Les Verts graced European cup competition, and with fans aching to recapture the successes of the 1960’s and 70’s it appears that the sleeping giant of French football may have just awoken.

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