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Going, going, Gones

For an hour on Tuesday night it looked like Lyon had finally cracked it in Europe.

Until a combination of poor finishing, rotten luck and Gérard Houllier's negative tactics undid them. Two last-gasp AC Milan goals later, Les Gones were goners.

After a goalless first leg in France there was a suspicion that Lyon had played Milan's reputation rather than their team. Midfielder Benoît Pedretti claimed the hype surrounding the six-time champions of Europe created a negative mindset within the Lyon camp.

'We were very poor early on. We played too deep and seemed happy to watch them play,' he said. 'An awful lot was written about Milan, but maybe they're not as good as everyone says.'

In that fixture, Houllier replaced the suspended Juninho with the buck-toothed Pedretti, who is competent enough but unlikely to give nightmares to anyone other than his dentist. This time Juninho was back and Tiago suspended, and most people expected Pedretti to get the call again. Instead it was winger Sidney Govou who got the nod, leaving Mahamadou Diarra alone to do the defensive dirty work in midfield.

It was a brave tactic that worked to perfection, as the visitors showed positive intent from the outset. The unlikely figure of Sylvain Wiltord hassled Andrea Pirlo into having an absolute stinker. The deep-lying playmaker misplaced more passes than a bus full of senile pensioners, as Milan's normally slick attacking play became disjointed and hesitant.

The rossoneri lacked youthful vigour, sporting a starting eleven with an average age the wrong side of 30. When sprightly 33-year-old Jaap Stam went off with injury Carlo Ancelotti unsurprisingly opted for experience, introducing Alessandro Costacurta, who turns 40 later this month. It would be overstating the fact to say Lyon smelt fear, but the whiff of Murray Mints from the Milan backline encouraged Florent Malouda and Govou to tear into their opponents, while Juninho dictated the play from the centre.

The Lyon selection bore fruit when Diarra bundled in the equaliser just after the half-hour mark. Although they missed chances to score a second, they were in control and remained there until the last twenty minutes, when Houllier's cautious side got the better of him.

He withdrew Fred and brought on John Carew, seemingly a sound move but negative in its intent. Although the giant Norwegian was introduced to hold up the ball, his brand of brute strength suited centre-back Alessandro Nesta far better than the pacy and awkward, if not entirely effective, Fred.

Seven minutes were left when Anthony Réveillère came on for Govou. Instead of bringing the extra bite that Pedretti would have given the midfield, Houllier's introduction of an extra defender seemed to confuse Lyon, who sat back and invited the final Milan onslaught. They seemed to view the nervy finale as an agonising rite of passage, rather than trying to head it off by keeping the ball and maintaining the dominance they showed over the first 80 minutes.

People claim that in times of momentous significance, time slows down. In fact it speeds up. History will record that in the 89th minute Andriy Shevchenko fired goalwards, Grégory Coupet touch the ball on to the post, it bounced across the line onto the other post and out, only for Filippo Inzaghi to pounce on the rebound and force it in. But in the time it took for that to happen, all Lyon fans could feel was sphincter-tightening fear, slight confusion, then a horrible, empty feeling as the ball pinged around the goalmouth before finally settling in the net.

It was a particularly galling defeat given the total lack of a challenge back at home. Les Gones are ambling distractedly towards a fifth consecutive league title, with no credible challenge to their domestic supremacy.

Europe is where they measure their progress, and three consecutive quarter-final exits are not good enough for ambitious president Jean-Michel Aulas.

Of course Houllier's job is not in danger, but Aulas was already talking about signing new strikers following his side's failure to put Milan away. 'Our lack of efficiency in front of goal is a problem and we'll have to look at that for next season,' he said.

Aulas's anxiety is understandable. The defeat is an undoubted setback for a club looking to break into the European elite. Nobody doubts the quality of their play any more, but there is a reluctance to view them among the best in Europe simply because they are from France, a country that has produced just one European cup-winner, and even then in deeply shady circumstances (Marseille's victory in 1993 was overshadowed when they were stripped of the domestic title for match-fixing).

Lyon's bid for recognition will not benefit from falling short again just as things start to get interesting. This may hurt them most the transfer market, where they lack the wherewithal of sides with the 'potential European champions' tag.

Instead they are forced to sign a mixture of talented youngsters (Fred) or cast-offs from 'bigger' clubs (Tiago, Carew). Aulas has his work cut out finding a striker who can take them to the next level.

He must also fear losing the team's heartbeat - the immense Diarra. A long-limbed destroyer with a surprisingly delicate touch, he would be the new Patrick Vieira were he not already as good as the Juventus man.

After being forced to cash in on Michael Essien last summer, it would be no surprise to see a European giant make Lyon an offer they can't refuse as they look to revive their ailing midfield - Real Madrid and Manchester United are the clubs that spring most readily to mind.

Lyon could be league champions this weekend if results go their way, while next midweek sees the visit of Marseille in the Coupe de France semi-finals. Most fans would be agog at the prospect of a domestic double. Forgive Lyon's if they seem slightly bored after the excitement of Europe.

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