PARIS (AP) — Once hailed as France's next Zinedine Zidane, Yoann Gourcuff should be peaking. Instead, the elegant but fragile midfielder is still trying to become the player he once was.
How someone so promising fell so far, so quickly is one of French football's great mysteries.
The 27-year-old with 31 international appearances hit rock bottom when a handful of fans watched him play for Lyon's reserves in early November. It was Gourcuff's latest comeback from injury, yet his improved recent form suggests the playmaker whose shoulders were crushed by the weight of expectation could now be turning the corner.
After scoring twice in August, Gourcuff again dropped off the radar before returning to Lyon's first team on Nov. 7. Last weekend's clinical, curling strike against Sochaux was only his third league goal of another difficult season.
In the final game before December's winter break, his clever back-heel set up Clement Grenier for a goal in a 2-2 draw at Lorient. Gourcuff's ratio of assists to time played is the best in the league.
There have been other glimpses of his natural talent, too.
He scored with a splendid 30-meter strike in a League Cup win against Reims in December. The week before, his neat turn inside the area earned a penalty in a 2-1 win at Vitoria Guimaraes. His brilliant timing to wrong-foot the defender had also been a Gourcuff hallmark when he helped Bordeaux win the title in 2008-09.
"When he's in perfect shape, he's a great teammate and a great player," Lyon striker Bafetimbi Gomis said.
However, he has shone only sporadically for Lyon since he joined from Bordeaux in 2010 in a transfer worth up to 26 million euros and on wages of 400,000 euros ($545,000) per month — a draining outlay for the club. To the annoyance of Lyon fans, the slightest muscle twinge seems to sideline Gourcuff. He has started 54 of a possible 131 games since his move.