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Feb 16, 2007

Lille ready catapults for giants United

Manchester United's trophy cabinet is so large it could be given its own postcode, but for United's Champions League opponents, Lille, cups are largely reserved to the players' canteen.

While United have won more gongs than Tom Hanks in the last decade, the last of Lille's two Ligue One titles came 53 years ago, yet the modest northern French side will welcome Sir Alex Ferguson to the town best known as a Eurostar stop between Paris and London in the last 16 of European football's elite competition next Tuesday with the aim of pulling off the shock of the round.

United have sat at the high table of continental football for decades, while Lille's European exploits extend to the meagre scraps of an Intertoto Cup in 2004, and the French side's leading striker, Peter Odemwingie, admits the tie - his side's first-ever in the knockout stages in only their third Champions League campaign - is a classic David and Goliath encounter.

'I can't say we're equals, because United are probably the biggest club in the Champions League,' the Nigeria international told ESPNsoccernet. 'But we've shown in the last two years that we can play against any team in Europe.

'Last year, we were very close to getting out of the group as well and the two that did, Benfica and Villarreal, got to the quarter-finals and the semi-finals. We've shown we can play against big teams, last year and this year. Against Lyon, we've given them some good games and they're one of the best teams in Europe at the moment so we think, on a good day, we can be at the same level as United.'

Not that United will, unlike much of the British media and public, make the mistake of underestimating Lille.

Whilst no doubt delighted to have avoided the fate which befell arch-rivals Liverpool in being dragged into a tie with Barcelona, Ferguson will hardly have been overjoyed at being paired with a familiar foe.

In finishing third behind Benfica and Villarreal in last season's group phase, Claude Puel's men indeed showed they could more than match United, taking four points off the English side and condemning Ferguson to the humiliation of last place in a group which had appeared there for the English side's taking.

Ferguson has insisted there will be no repeat of that shock, and Odemwingie knows the Premiership leaders are a different proposition to the uninspiring outfit of last season, even writing off United's shock defeat in Copenhagen during this season's group phase.

'Champions League games can be like that,' he said. 'You can't judge from some performances. There are days when your opponents are extremely motivated, and so they can produce surprise results. And when you don't prepare for a big game, big teams can lose to any other team.

'Of course, we haven't forgotten that we gave them two good matches. That gives us confidence. United are better than last year, we're also better than last year. But this time round, it's another level. It's going to be tougher than the games last year.'

Those matches left Ferguson outraged, the Scot fuming over Lille's muscular tactics as Puel's squad battled its way to a goalless draw at Old Trafford and a one-nil victory in the Stade de France, courtesy of a goal from ephemeral ex-Spurs midfielder Milenko Acimovic.

So can United expect a repeat battering this season?

'Let me give you an example, you cannot expect a player who has no quality to score with his head to get on the end of crosses. Everyone plays to their own strengths, and United and Lille are no different,' Odemwingie explained unapologetically. 'We have a strong squad, and we play to our strengths and that's how we succeed.'

But to brand Lille as mere cloggers would be unfair, as Puel has formed an admittedly athletic and combative but also well-oiled attacking team since moving north in the summer of 2002 having won the Ligue One title with Monaco, where his managerial schooling was headmastered by Ferguson's Premiership nemesis, Arsene Wenger.

Given the club's modest means - it has the 12th largest budget of Ligue 1 - Puel has had to tinker and tailor rather than engage in an annual overhaul of his squad, instilling a 'team is the star' philosophy to keep dressing-room egos in check and producing a close-knit unit far stronger than the sum of its parts.

Keeper Tony Sylva arrived from Monaco's second-string XI, Efstathios Tavlaridis - remember him? - emerged from the anonymity of Arsenal's squad, free-scoring midfielder Mathieu Bodmer was poached from Caen, speedy wide man Kader Keita has been plucked from Qatar, tough-tackling midfielder Jean II Makoun jumped over bureaucratic hurdles for a year before he got the work permit he required to leave Cameroon for France, while Odemwingie himself was smuggled over the border from nearby Belgium.

Second and third-place finishes in the last two Ligue 1 seasons and two successive Champions League qualifications attest to the quality hidden behind unfamiliar names, but success has brought the inevitable difficulty in keeping the squad together with some of Puel's key figures soon likely to go the way of Eric Abidal three years ago when the France left-back joined Lyon.

Bodmer, Lille's top scorer with eight this season - and a major injury doubt for the game after spraining an ankle earlier this month - is top of many 'wanted' lists, while Makoun was tracked for some time by Ferguson himself last season with the United boss looking to add some midfield steel to his side.

And Odemwinigie is hardly surprised at the interest in himself and his team-mates.

'This year, this is the best team that we've had,' insists the 25-year-old, in his third season at the club after catching Puel's eye at La Louviere. 'I think we have some key players who can become big stars. As a group, we're known. As individuals, we're very good players. We're young, we've still got room to improve - we have age on our side.'

This year's Champions League campaign has already seen the side do a lot of growing up.

Plunged into a group with Anderlecht, AEK Athens and Milan, Lille went to the San Siro for their final game needing to win to have any hope of going through. Puel's players duly obliged with a 2-0 victory, becoming the first French side to beat Milan on their own patch and clinching their place in the knockout phase.

Odemwingie says the lessons learned in Italy will stand the side in good stead against United.

'In the Champions League, it's all about motivation and being totally prepared for a big game. If you do that, then you can get a very good result,' said the fleet-footed forward, who opened the scoring before Keita sealed the three points and qualification.

'Before Milan, we believed it was possible. We know ourselves and we thought we could do it in Milan. Of course, we played well. Champions League games are special and if you really want to, you can surpass yourself.'

The success on the pitch is all the more surprising when set in relief against the set-up off it.

With their 21,000-seater stadium at Villeneuve d'Ascq falling short of UEFA's requirements and plans for a new all-purpose venue having only just emerged from an interminable pipeline of municipal red-tape, the club - for the second season in a row - have to play their 'home' matches elsewhere.

Last season, the Stade de France in Paris played host to their group phase games - and the defeat of United - but with the capital some 250 kilometres from Lille, the club have decided to let bygones be bygones and teamed up with neighbours Lens to use their bitter rivals' 41,000-capacity Felix Bollaert Stadium.

United's pulling power meant the game sold out weeks ago, and Odemwingie revealed that playing at their new home from home has not adversely affected the side's progress.

'We have no choice,' he said bluntly. 'If we had a choice, it could affect us. But we don't think about it, as that's the only alternative that we have. But it's not too far away, we'll get good support and we've already played five games there. So we feel comfortable there.'

Odemwingie, though, is far less relaxed about his own form.

Top scorer with 14 in 26 games last season - to finish second in the Ligue 1 scoring charts behind Portuguese goal-poacher supreme Pauleta - Odemwingie averaged a goal a game in Lille's opening five Ligue One fixtures, but aside from a goal against Anderlecht and the one in the San Siro in the Champions League - he has failed to hit the net since September 9.

'It is troubling me,' he admitted unsurprisingly. 'Valery Lobanovski, the great coach of Dynamo Kiev, said, 'Just play good football, and the results will come.' I just have to keep going and I will get goals. It's not easy, but there are other players like Bodmer, Keita and Makoun, who are being leaders, scoring and doing well. When I look at the table, I see that the team are doing well so I'm still putting in my contribution. That's what is most important and that helps me.'

The reference to Lobanovski may be surprising, but that and the character shown during his goal-drought is less surprising when you delve deeper into Odemwingie's own story.

Born in the Uzbek capital Tashkent to a Russian mother and Nigerian doctor father, he honed his footballing talents in the former Soviet Union - even joining CSKA Moscow's youth set-up as a 15-year-old - then spent three years in his paternal homeland before clinching a move to Belgium in 2002.

And he admits the game and his footballing prowess proved an antidote to the pressures of growing up as a youngster of African origin in the former Communist east.

'It was difficult,' he said. 'When I went to Moscow, I wasn't a child any more and I started to notice the way people used to look at me. It wasn't easy. I just had to try and think about football. That's what kept my mind off the negative things. Sometimes, during this period, football helped me to be special. I was always very good, so the joy of that overshadowed the rest.'

Having already played in five countries, Odemwingie is not ready to put away his passport just yet, though his next move - should it come - may require only a short train ride from his current home on the France-Belgium border.

'The Premiership would be best for me, it would be my first option,' he admitted when pondering his future. 'There are a lot of Nigerians there and the league is televised in Nigeria. It's an English-speaking country, so things would be a little bit easier. I'm enjoying my life as it's going now, but I hope to be able to play in the Premiership one day.'

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