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Feb 19, 2006

Watching the Olympiques

The insular French media strikes again. Friday's big story at the Winter Olympics was the spectacular demise of Lindsey Jacobellis, the American snowboarder who celebrated too early on her way to a certain gold medal and ended up with a face full of snow, allowing Switzerland's Tanja Frieden to sweep past and snatch victory.

Had an edgy Lyon side seen the story, the spooky parallels with their own recent slide would surely have set the nerves jangling ahead of the evening's game against feisty Nantes. After it seemed the entire second half of the season would be one long lap of honour for the four-time champions, they had seen their lead whittled down from 15 points to just seven. Were they about to do a Jacobellis?

Unfortunately, the symbolism was rather lost on them, as winter sports fans in l'Hexagone spent the day being told that Elodie Bourgeois-Pin had been ruled out of the women's 4x5km cross-country skiing relay by flu. Seeing no harbingers of doom in the latter story, Lyon went out and thrashed Nantes 3-1, restoring their ten-point gap ahead of Bordeaux with 26 matches played apiece.

The Girondins can crank the pressure back up with a win away against relegation fodder Ajaccio on Saturday night, but Fridays' result will have Lyon fans breathing more easily after they ended a run of three consecutive draws.

Coach Gérard Houllier will be particularly pleased at the potency of his previously misfiring attack, who found the net just twice in that run of draws, failing to score for the first time all season against Bordeaux themselves.

Playmaker Juninho Pernambucano, the only player in the world whose right foot is so good it is described as a 'magic wand' - an accolade usually (and inexplicably) reserved for 'educated' left feet - has been more Tommy Cooper than David Blaine recently.

Standing in for injured club captain Claudio Caçapa, his normally sensational free-kicks have been bouncing off more walls than a hyperactive toddler. But he was back on form against Nantes, bending one past the helpless Thomas Heurtebis for 'only' his fifth league goal of the season. The incongruously-named Brazilian, Fred, poked home his seventh goal while even stay-at-home holding midfielder Mahamadou Diarra got in on the act.

Their only regret will be the failure to keep a clean sheet, unsurprising given the glut of recent injuries to defenders. Caçapa, Anthony Réveillère and Sylvain Monsoureau all missed the game, while Eric Abidal made a welcome return after suffering his second metatarsal injury of the season (see, it doesn't only happen to England internationals).

Houllier for one declared himself a satisfied customer, saying: 'Our victory was richly deserved. The first half was sumptuous, with many scoring chances for us. We played some great stuff. After half-time we scored a third goal but went down a level. Did the players have one eye on Eindhoven? It's hard to say, but Nantes weren't very dangerous. I have rediscovered a team that is thirsty for victory and knows what it has to do to seal a fifth straight title.'

The win could not have been timed better, ahead of Tuesday's trip to Eindhoven to face PSV in the Champions League. The Dutch side knocked them out on penalties last season, and Lyon will be eager to show they have learned their lesson from that encounter, when they were content to boss the game but failed to put away their chances.

Meanwhile, a former Lyon coach had his countrymen baffled by his dalliance with Glasgow Rangers. Paul Le Guen quit the Stade Gerland at the end of last season having brought three titles to the club and seemingly with a glittering managerial career ahead of him.

Why such a distinguished and intelligent man would be in danger of swallowing the usual guff about Rangers being 'one of the biggest teams in Europe' is beyond anybody in France. Including, it would seem, Le Guen's agent, whose meeting with Rangers chairman David Murray this week had the Ibrox man pouring cold water on the issue. After all, Le Guen has had a similar 'poke around' numerous clubs - including Stuttgart, Lazio and Benfica - before politely declining employment.