Puel remaining downbeat
Spending half an hour in the company of Lille manager Claude Puel would convince his most passionate supporter that Manchester United will make a comfortable passage into Champions League quarter-finals.
Whether Puel's words should be viewed as clever pre-match psychology designed to take the pressure off his players, or an honest assessment of his side's hopes in the Felix Bollaert Stadium on Tuesday night is open to question, but United would be advised to treat his mutterings with distain.
After all, he came out with similar downbeat comments before Lille snatched four points from United and helped to knock them out of the Champions League at the group phase last season, but he seems keen to banish memories of those impressive results as United go in search of revenge.
'We've been handed a very tough draw,' begins Puel. 'Along with Lyon, Manchester United have made a very strong impression on me this season. In my opinion, there's no one better in Europe at the moment than these two. Sir Alex Ferguson has put together a real team.
'To tell the truth, I would have preferred to meet someone else. We've made it to the knock-out phase of the Champions League and it would have been great to celebrate the event by testing ourselves against a big team we had not played so recently. Still, there is a considerable advantage to being paired with United. We are already familiar with their shape, their mentality and the atmosphere at Old Trafford.
'Of course, we can take a lot of positives from our displays against them last season. We beat them 1-0 at the Stade de France and drew 0-0 in Manchester. Four points out of six was no mean feat, and those two games will do our belief no harm at all. We'll not have any inhibitions about playing them and won't be intimidated.'
Picking out a United danger man proves to be a tough task for Puel, but he names two obvious contenders. 'Their danger men are too numerous to mention, but we clearly have to find a way to counter Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes,' he states.
'As someone who played a large part of their career at full-back, I would have hated to come up against a winger of the class of Ronaldo. He has so much flair and speed and crucially, he has become a little less individualistic. He plays more for the team nowadays and that's the mark of good coaching from Ferguson. We'll have to be very wary of Ronaldo, his mobility, quick feet, his inventiveness and his goals.
'Scholes is another player I like a lot. He gives Manchester another dimension, he regulates their attack. Whenever I've seen him, he hardly ever seems to give the ball away. His range of passing is incredible, so we'll have to make sure he's not as effective as usual.'
While this will be Lille's debut appearance in the last 16 of the Champions League, their achievement in finishing second behind AC Milan in the group phase was diminished by the fact they beat an under-motivated and already qualified Rossoneri outfit to progress.
Puel is riled by the suggestion that luck as much as judgement got his team this far, as he suggests their form in the competition merited a place in the second half of the Champions League. 'Lille have not got to this stage of the competition by accident,' is his swift response.
'We performed to a high standard in all six of our group games, even though results did not always go our way. The boys proved they belonged in the Champions League.
'We've shown so much character, kept our tactical discipline and played with much more conviction in attack. The statistics tell their own story. In the Champions League last season, we only scored once, this time we managed eight, so no one watching us this time has been bored.
'The victory against Milan at the San Siro was a great achievement. Yes, they had already qualified, but it was the performance that made my players realise they could compete on an even playing field with the big boys of Europe.
'We stuck together, defensively we were very compact and more often than not we were first to any loose ball. Our desire saw us through and that was so gratifying. It was just reward for three or four years of excellent work here and now comes the challenge of building on the San Siro experience. We're looking for the next mountain to climb.'
The cynics claim Lille are little more than a workmanlike side who compensate for a lack of ability by testing their opponents' will with a barrage of long-ball football, but such an accusation receives a swift repost from Puel.
'It's a cliché to say we go from front to back very quickly,' he says. 'Yes we can go the direct route and score goals on the counter, but there's also times when we score after well constructed moves of twelve or thirteen passes. I happen to think we are becoming more and more able to dictate the play, to express ourselves in the attacking-third.
'What I'm looking for is a balance. Sometimes playing the ball around too much makes you less effective. At the same time, simply hitting long forward balls is not the answer either.'
Having worked under Arsene Wenger during his says as a player at Monaco, it would be something of a mystery if Puel's philosophy revolved around route one football and the Lille boss confirms he has taken much of the Arsenal manager's methods into his own coaching career.
'I couldn't fail to be influenced by the seven years I spent playing for Arsene Wenger,' he concludes. 'What I've really taken on board from him was his man-management skills and his ability to remain detached from the heat of the battle. Even with emotions running high, Arsene was always able to keep his composure, to expertly analyse what was working or not and make the necessary corrections.
'He doesn't use the big stick. He has a quiet way of making players take responsibility for themselves and that's the best way to encourage people to perform. Give them respect and you will get it back.'
Manchester United have first hand experience of the fate that may befall them if they treat Lille with contempt - Claude Puel's team have earned the right to be respected.