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Feb 5, 2007

Have Lyon been tamed?

Gerard Houllier this weekend dusted off his shell suit, donned a curly 1970s Terry McDermott-endorsed matching permed wig and moustache set and peppered his team-talk with 'Calmez-vous, calmez-vous' as the adopted Scouser tried to turn around what he recently described as his Lyon side's 'relegation form.'

Under normal circumstances, Sunday's trip to Troyes - a side so haunted by relegation even an exorcist may not be able to save them - would normally have inspired all the trepidation felt by a cocksure playboy about to deflower an unwitting virgin.

But instead, what should have been little more than a bus ride, a few hands of cards and three points safely banked, had taken on all the enormity and threat of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, and come the final whistle proved the lowest moment so far in Lyon's worst run of form since the turn of the century.

Last Wednesday's 2-1 injury-time French Cup defeat at Marseille was the five-time champions' second defeat in three games and Houllier's miserable men made that three losses in four as they slipped to a barely credible 94th-minute defeat at Troyes leaving them with just two points from five Ligue One games.

Still, they're hardly queuing up to phone the Samaritans.

The one defeat and single draw in their first 18 matches ensures a luxurious velvet-quilted feather-down eleven-point cushion between themselves and the chasing pack, leaving them well on course to becoming the first side in Europe to win six consecutive domestic titles.

And though hopes of repeating Celtic's 'quadruple' of the 1960s were dashed by late goals at the Stade Velodrome last week, they are already due to play Bordeaux in the final of the League Cup in March and preparing to say 'Buongiorno' to Roma in the last 16 of the Champions League later this month.

So they can be forgiven for taking their eye off the ball momentarily.

But while no-one at Stade Gerland is reaching for the panic button, they perhaps should have their finger hovering over the knob marked 'slightly nervous' as their dip in form has highlighted problems in what previously appeared to be a flawless winning machine.

In an interview with France Football recently, Bernard Lacombe - a former Lyon star and now special advisor to club president Jean-Michel Aulas - admitted it would be a tough ask to replace captain Juninho, such is the 31-year-old midfielder's influence on the team.

The Brazilian - vastly and scandalously under-rated outside of snail-eating territory - has a unique, rubber-legged fashion of delivering set pieces which has struck fear into the French goalkeeping fraternity, and helped make him the club's joint-top scorer with seven this season.

But his form of late has not so much nose-dived as plummeted head first into the ground and ploughed on with even his famed set-piece sorcery deserting him, showing that when Juninho doesn't play, Lyon don't play.

Though Lyon's goal at Marseille came from a Juninho free-kick - Cris heading it in back stick - other direct efforts ballooned shamefully off target when they would normally have given promising keeper Cedric Carrasso more to think about than a Stephen Hawking novel.

The former Seleçao luxury sub's frustration at his own - and no doubt his team's - troubles boiled over after the final whistle at Troyes as he angrily gesticulated in the general direction of anyone within finger-wagging distance having produced yet another colourless display.

Juninho though is not alone in going through a barren spell.

Midfield partner Jeremy Toulalan, who usually patrols Makelele-esque in front of the back four, is enduring a particularly arid run of form, symbolised by him flicking on a long ball for Baky Koné to score and earn relegation fodder Nice an unexpected point at Gerland recently.

With defensive-midfield clone Alou Diarra picking up an untimely injury, Houllier has had no choice other than to stick with Toulalan, before seeing his hand forced by the former Nantes player's suspension against Marseille.

With new signing Fabio Santos - brought in from Brazilian side Cruzeiro to give Houllier more midfield steel - barely over his jet-lag, ex-Chelsea square-peg Tiago was put in the round hole in front of the back four against Marseille, thus undermining still further the side's defensive robustness.

That solidity had - and still has - given Lyon the best defensive record in the league, but they have seen the opposition ripple their net on no less than ten occasions in their last eight games, which can in part be explained by Toulalan's troubles and also an injury to first-choice keeper Greg Coupet.

The France number one missed the first two league games of the new year through injury, gifting stand-in Remi Vercoutre a rare chance to shine - an opportunity he took with both hands, before letting it slip through his butter-fingers as he presided over two straight defeats against Toulouse and Bordeaux.

With little assurance behind them and no shield in front of them, the back four have looked vulnerable.

There's also the issue of Eric Abidal, who nearly left in the summer after the World Cup, and whose recent displays suggest he already has his head elsewhere.

Both of Marseille's goals came from crosses down the Lyon left, the domain of the France left-back, and the fact Lyon bought Sedan's promising left-sided full-back Nadir Belhadj in the January transfer window, suggests Abidal's body may well join his mind under other skies come next summer.

Things are little better at the other end.

One would have thought flogging John Carew to Aston Villa would have solved Lyon's goalscoring problems in less time than it takes to say 'It's always been a dream of mine to pick up a massive wage in the Premiership.'

The 'big Norwegian' (copyright any British tabloid you care to name after his matchwinner against West Ham) was hailed as Pele no less after he destroyed Real Madrid in Lyon's Champions League encounter in Spain in November, but Lacombe's comment that 'you can go five minutes without seeing him on the pitch' is - sorry Villa fans - far more representative of Carew's capabilities.

But bringing in Milan Baros has only worsened the problem - no, sniggering Liverpool and Villa fans, not that way.

Baros was quickly off the mark, scoring on his first start in the draw with Nice, but his decision to lower his wages, er...standards and join Lyon may have added to Houllier's options but they have also deepened his problems.

The Czech Republic striker was linked with Fred against Marseille as Lyon deployed a classic 4-4-2 having been devastatingly effective in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 for much of the season, even when starting with right-back François Clerc up front when an injury crisis had deprived Houllier of any other alternative.

But the tactical switch seems to have come at too high a price.

France's raiding left midfielder, Florent Malouda, and fellow Bleu Sidney Govou have terrrorised defences this season as they have been given licence to roam forward safe in the knowledge a three-man triangle behind them would do the bulk of their defensive duties.

With Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra of Lyon's yesteryear, it may have been possible for Govou and Malouda to continue 'bombing on,' but not with the athletically less daunting Juninho and Tiago.

This forced the two wide men to do their fair share of tracking back, while the added defensive responsibility reduced Juninho's ability to orchestrate the attack as well as Tiago's intelligent late bursts into the box, making Lyon a far less ferocious proposition going forward.

Having said that, even switching back to his favoured 4-3-3 with his first-choice line-up against Troyes failed to break the mould such is the downbeat mood in the squad.

But in the long run, ironically, this sticky patch may actually serve Lyon in their quest for what has become the club's Holy Grail, the Champions League.

Club president Aulas has built the club from second division also-rans to France's most fearsome footballing force in less than two decades, and having just this month won his long-running battle to change French law to allow clubs to be listed on the stock exchange, he now fervently desires the 'cup with the big ears' to set the seal on his legacy.

For all their relative obscurity outside France - apart from Sylvain Wiltord, how many players can you name? - Lyon have reached the quarter-finals in the last three years with only the greater experience of Milan and some pub-league defending from Abidal putting paid to their largely sentimental hopes of getting to Paris for last year's final.

But Lyon have generally gone into the knockout phase with a healthy degree of angst.

Now, with the Ligue One title virtually assured by Christmas and having gone unbeaten through the group phase - giving a couple of football lessons to Real Madrid in the process - there was a sneering jubilation when they drew Roma in the last 16.

Yes, the same Roma who are second in Serie A, who at times have torn opponents apart this season, boast Italy's top scorer in a currently inspired Francesco Totti and, though not wholly convincing in the group phase, have a side packed with quality performers.

But there was very much the feeling, 'Hey lads, we can do this lot' emanating from the Lyon camp when the balls came out of the pot.

Maybe so, and on paper and probably on the pitch, Houllier's first XI is more than a match for that of Luciano Spalletti, but before hitting rocky ground, there was a confidence bordering on arrogance - arrogance that will now no longer be there when the two sides meet in the Eternal City on February 21.

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