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.
"At certain times I felt that (Lyon) didn't show enormous faith in me," Gourcuff said recently. "It doesn't upset me but I've taken note."
Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas responded last week that he is willing to sell the player who has 18 months left on his contract.
With Lyon financing a new stadium, Aulas is limited in the transfer market unless he can offload top earners. That no team took Gourcuff on loan this season shows how far his stock has fallen.
Five years ago, the over-used "next Zidane" label seemed to fit Gourcuff. His solo goal for Bordeaux against Paris Saint-Germain in January 2009 — controlling the ball and turning into space in one fluid movement and then finishing powerfully — bore the class of France's World Cup-winning maestro.
Gourcuff's 35-meter strike in a World Cup qualifier in Romania a few months earlier also was magnificent.
But France's awful 2010 World Cup campaign sapped his confidence. Gourcuff was heavily criticized after starting the first game, a dull 0-0 draw against Uruguay. That Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery hardly ever passed to Gourcuff seemed to lend credence to whispers that he was unpopular in Raymond Domenech's team bent on self-destruction, which alienated all of France by going on strike during training in South Africa.
Domenech's replacement, Laurent Blanc, gave Gourcuff several chances. But Blanc didn't take Gourcuff to the 2012 European Championship.
Current France coach Didier Deschamps has twice selected Gourcuff. But his midfield is taking shape around Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba.
Gourcuff may well have peaked when he was 22.