- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

PARIS (AP) - With the tense French title race going to the wire, the contrast between rivals Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon is striking.

Big-spending ambition vs. homegrown talent.

Household names vs. unheralded local lads.

The quick, rich way to success vs. the methodical approach based on years of spotting and shaping talents in one of Europe’s best youth academies.

It is an extraordinary achievement that Lyon, having changed managers and with no money to spend before the season started, is only one point behind PSG with seven games left to play.

While PSG scours the world for big names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, Lyon looks closer to home.

PSG’s team in Sunday’s 3-2 win at Marseille, including the three substitutes, cost 292 million euros ($321 million).

Lyon’s team in Saturday’s 3-1 win at Guingamp cost 2.8 million euros ($3.1 million) and half of the 14 players involved were aged 21 or younger. Lyon’s starting lineup featured nine homegrown players and the three substitutes were also formed at the club.

Put another way, the team cost 100 times less than PSG’s, which featured one homegrown player.

Lyon’s academy has the second-highest success rate in Europe behind Barcelona.

Aside from the players in Lyon’s current squad, a further 52 players formed at the club are playing elsewhere: 38 in France’s top two leagues and 14 abroad, including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Chelsea’s Loic Remy.

Lyon recruits 70 percent of its players locally in the Rhone-Alpes region of south-eastern France - with spotters sharing seven districts - thus ensuring that the best local talent doesn’t leave. Strong partnerships are formed with amateur clubs who nurture those talents.

Of Lyon’s current squad, 12 are from the Rhone-Alpes. Many went to school together, so when they reach the first team, they already understand each other on and off the pitch. The bond is cemented.

The talent spotters look for specific things: excellent technique, speed of thought, and a reluctance to play a pass backward: qualities abundant in Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacezette, Lyon’s best players this season.

“We always have this idea of playing attacking football with technical players who have the capacity to be winners, but with a certain style,” Gerard Bonneau, Lyon’s chief recruiter since 2003, told France Football magazine recently.

When PSG traveled to play Lyon at Stade Gerland on Feb. 8, home fans held up a banner saying “Le Made in Lyon vaut bien plus que vos millions” (The Made in Lyon is worth much more than your millions).

The jibe was valid.

With a squad estimated at a value of 370 million euros, PSG should be way ahead after 31 games.

But it has been top of the league for only two games - this weekend and last.

A slow start and embarrassing defeats to lowly Guingamp and Bastia either side of Christmas dented a widely anticipated march to a third straight title.

PSG has a French Cup semifinal against Saint-Etienne on Wednesday, followed by the League Cup final against Bastia on Saturday and the first leg of its Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona four days later.

“Our objective is to win the four trophies,” PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi said. “With the soldiers I have in my team I believe we can.”

But PSG lost two key players - midfielder Thiago Motta and defender David Luiz - to muscle injuries in Sunday’s win. Third-placed Marseille is five points back and Monaco will also be five behind if it beats Montpellier on Tuesday.

“I think this will go until the end and it will be difficult for us,” Ibrahimovic said.

Already suspended once this season, Ibrahimovic could be banned for up to four games at a disciplinary hearing this week for his expletive-laced rant against French officials following a league game last month.

Lyon could make big money this summer by cashing in on its main assets: forwards Lacazette and Fekir, who have combined for 36 goals this season with Lacazette topping the French scoring charts with 24.

Both have broken into the France team, with the 23-year-old Lacazette scoring his first international goal recently in a 2-0 win against Denmark, and the 21-year-old Fekir showed glimpses of his talent in cameos against the Danes and Brazil.

The only two non-homegrown players in Lyon’s team Saturday - fullbacks Henri Bedimo and Mouhamadou Dabo - cost 2.8 million euros ($3.1 million). That figure would have been raised if Yoann Gourcuff was not once again injured.

Once hailed as the new Zinedine Zidane, the playmaker cost Lyon 26 million euros ($29 million) - with monthly wages of 400,000 - when he joined from Bordeaux in August, 2010.

That transfer would hit Lyon hard.

A decision was made at the start of last season, under former coach Remi Garde, to fast-track homegrown players even more quickly because Lyon simply had no choice.

Debts incurred from building a 58,000-seat stadium costing 250 million euros ($345 million) - set to open next season - and some over-priced signings from 2008-10 left the club seriously out of pocket.

PSG finished nine points ahead of Monaco ast season, and 12 ahead of Marseille the previous year. But in 2011-12, PSG blew a three-point lead at the halfway stage and went on to finish three behind title winner Montpellier in one of French football’s biggest upsets.

Now, Lyon’s local lads could spring another one.

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