Lyon celebrate toughest title of seven
PARIS, May 18 (Reuters) - For once, winning the league title was not a formality for Olympique Lyon, now facing a challenge to remain the dominant force in French soccer.
For the first time since they claimed their first Ligue 1 crown in 2002, Lyon had to wait until the season's final round of matches to wrap it up.
Saturday's 3-1 convincing win at Auxerre gave them a record seventh successive title and they will now chase a first domestic double when they meet Paris St Germain in Saturday's French Cup final at the Stade de France.
Their league triumph, however, was far from smooth.
Nine points ahead of second-placed Girondins Bordeaux on March 30, Lyon saw that advantage dwindle to just two points five matches later after a patchy spell of form.
They were still only two points clear going into the final weekend, which ended with them on 79 points, four ahead of Bordeaux, who were held 2-2 at relegated Racing Lens.
'I admit that this seventh title was the hardest to win,' said Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, who has helped transform the club from a sleepy provincial outfit into the yardstick for French sides.
'It was an extraordinary championship. We end up with nearly 80 points and we beat our record goal tally (with 74).'
Aulas certainly has reasons to be satisfied but will rue the fact Lyon again failed to make an impact in Europe, falling to Manchester United in the Champions League's first knockout stage.
The Lyon boss also realises his side could be tested at home next season by Bordeaux, who impressed in their first campaign under the guidance of former France defender Laurent Blanc.
'Bordeaux could have and maybe should have become the champions,' Aulas said in a rare display of humility.
Lyon experienced rare problems when France goalkeeper Gregory Coupet and Brazil defender Cris, suffered long-term knee injuries at the beginning of the season.
Even after they returned, new coach Alain Perrin struggled to come up with a coherent game plan and to win acceptance from his players.
Aulas, who has a penchant for getting rid of title-winning coaches, hardly gave a ringing endorsement of Perrin and a question mark now hangs over the coach's future.
'The answer to the question on whether I will still be the Lyon coach next season does not belong to me,' Perrin told reporters after Saturday's game. 'All I know is I have a contract.'
The good news for Lyon is that Karim Benzema, this season's revelation and Ligue 1's top scorer with 20 goals, has pledged his future to the club.
A potent mix of power and skill with the makings of a true great, the 20-year-old France striker was instrumental again on Saturday, clinically putting Lyon ahead after just 24 seconds.
Lyon still need to rebuild, some of their senior players, notably Coupet and Brazilian midfielder Juninho, comfortably the wrong side of 30.
Bordeaux and others will be hoping that this season marked the end of an era. Aulas's next mission is to prove them wrong.