Julien Stéphan has been saying it for several weeks: “You have to be emotionally stable. The Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace (RCSA) coach, whose quality of pre-match chats is often praised, knows that his team was not programmed to play the leading roles in the French football championship . And yet, before the start of this 38th and last day of Ligue 1, Saturday May 21, Strasbourg occupies 5th place in the standings and is preparing to play a “final” for Europe in Marseille.

In the event of a victory at the Vélodrome stadium, which it has not managed to do since 1997 in the league, the Alsatian club would qualify for the Europa League or the Europa League Conference – depending on the other results of the evening. A performance that would crown an exceptional 2021-2022 financial year for Strasbourg and for Julien Stéphan, for whom this is the first year at the club.

“The season is already successful even before this last day,” says Marc Keller to Le Monde. Ten years after recovering the club at amateur level for a symbolic euro, the president of the RCSA, generally discreet in the media, recalls the ambitions of the start of the season when there was no question of playing Europe: “When Julien Stéphan arrived in Strasbourg and we talked about the objectives, I told him that I expected a dynamic team, which goes forward, which pleases its public, which does not give up and which fills the stadium. »

Even before this match in Marseille, which “we approach without any pressure”, assures the boss of Racing, the objectives of the club are already fulfilled. The people of Strasbourg have been vibrating for several months behind this team which is having its best season since the only French championship title in its history, in 1979. After the victory against Clermont (1-0), on May 14, for the “last of the season in a melting Meinau stadium, “All in Marseille, all in Marseille!” came down from the stands.

With Stéphan, immediate results

Fans who will not be at the Vélodrome will be able to go to the area around the stadium on Saturday evening, where a fan zone is expected to accommodate between 6,000 and 7,000 people. Everyone believes in it when Strasbourg has passed a milestone this season under the orders of Julien Stéphan. The former coach of Rennes, a club he left on his own in March 2021, surprised many with his choice to join Strasbourg last summer. A decision that some have described as a regression for the young technician (41 years old), who interested and still interests more upscale teams.

His choice therefore fell on Alsace and the RCSA, where he quickly applied his style of play. Strasbourg player (2004-2009) and consultant for France Bleu Alsace. This status as a playful team was confirmed at the start of the season, with prolific successes against Metz (3-0), Saint-Etienne (5-1), Lorient (4-0), Bordeaux (5-2) or Nice (3-0).

The three strikers Ludovic Ajorque (12 goals), Habib Diallo (11 goals) and Kévin Gameiro (11 goals) succeeded each other to ensure the biggest share of the club’s goals. But, as the season progressed, “the team was stronger defensively and less transcendent, able to win games 1-0,” said Rudy Carlier. All thanks to a defense “that we rebuilt with Gerzino Nyamsi, Maxime Le Marchand, Lucas Perrin and Frédéric Guilbert, who gave us a new dynamic”, underlines Marc Keller.

From the fight against relegation to that for Europe

In-season injuries and the recent Matchday 34 loss to Lille (0-1) – the first in eleven games, which lifted the RCSA out of the top 5 for the first time since January – have not mortgaged Strasbourg’s chances of qualifying for the European Cup. The draw snatched from La Meinau against Paris – Saint-Germain (3-3) in the following match, after being trailing by two goals, allowed the group to believe in their chances. “To have a good season, you need a locker room that lives well, and we have this chance”, assures the president of the club which has the 14th budget in Ligue 1 (45 million euros for the current season).

“The first six or seven big budgets are still far ahead of us for us to have ambitions to play in the European Cup. But we are trying to do a serious job, and finishing this European season would be great, ”adds Marc Keller, who sees this season as another step in the constant progress of his club. To do this, the RCSA has invested in recent years in a new training center, which has just been baptized, with a partner: Racing Soprema Parc.

“We are still in the second group, with Nantes, Montpellier or Lens,” says Marc Keller. Strasbourg have risen to the heights of the big Ligue 1 clubs this season after struggling against relegation in 2021. In 2019, two years after their rise to Ligue 1, Racing played in a preliminary round of the Europa League after their victory in the League Cup, eliminated by Eintracht Frankfurt. This time, Strasbourg are considering a direct qualification for the C3 group stages in the event of 4th place.

If the Alsatian club finishes 5th, it will have to go through the qualifying rounds of the Europa League Conference. Despite the stakes, the RCSA approaches this meeting in Marseille without pressure. “The club is very peaceful, the whole ecosystem is united,” relishes Marc Keller. Only one last success on Saturday against OM is missing for Strasbourg to make the 2021-2022 financial year a historic season.