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Aug 26, 2009

Lisandro fills Benzema void

A summer of upheaval appears not to have dented Lyon's desire to progress their side beyond the Champions League quarter-final stage, as they comfortably brushed past a potentially tricky qualifier against Anderlecht to remind everyone that they will still be a force in this year's competition.

Les Gones have not made it past the last eight in Europe's top club competition before, but they cemented their place in the group stages with an 8-2 aggregate win, after a season in which they lost their seven-year hold on the French Championship. And they have done so following a summer which saw the likes of Juninho and Karim Benzema leave the club.

Lyon will line up in their tenth consecutive appearance in the Champions League, but over the past few months they have had to rebuild their side - to the tune of around €75m - and have also had to change their philosophy.

The most dominant force in French football was focused around the talents of Brazilian midfielder Juninho and young academy star Benzema and everyone knew it. So, when Juninho chose to seek a new challenge and had the final year of his contract cancelled to join Qatari side Al-Gharafa, and Real Madrid's €41m proved too great an offer to refuse for Benzema, many predicted their downfall.

But this season, coach Claude Puel has sought to make the side interchangeable, thereby creating different attacking options for the team, to great effect; without relying on any one player. A 3-0 win over Auxerre last weekend prompted Les Bourguignons' coach Jean Fernandez to claim: "Last season there were only maximum two players you had to fear, now there's more of them."

Indeed, squad players have been stepping up, with the likes of Miralem Pjanic and Kim Kallstrom seeking to fill the gaps left by the departing duo. Across the pitch the established first-team players are finding competent backups, while there is a spine of Hugo Lloris, Cris and Jeremy Toulalan that gives stability to the system.

Compared to last season, the bench is bigger, with an experienced player like Fabio Grosso deemed surplus to requirements and seemingly on his way out of the club. But the real difference this year appears to be the fact that the club have replaced two of their top players, with four.

To fill the Benzema void, striker Bafetimbi Gomis has arrived from Saint-Etienne for a fee of €13m, alongside a €24m outlay on Argentinean forward Lisandro Lopez from Porto. To replace the creativity of Juninho, another Brazilian, Michel Bastos, has arrived from Lille for a fee of €18m; while left-back Aly Cissokho - €15m from Porto - has improved the defence.

Goals have not been in short supply as Gomis has bagged three in his first four games - two against Anderlecht in the first leg - and has caused opposition defences problems with his power. Looking like a different player to the one who flopped so poorly for France in Euro 2008, he has attracted praise from rival players and still has plenty of developing to do as he is only 24 years old.

Benoit Pedretti, himself a former Lyon player, claimed after the Auxerre defeat: ''He's used as a target man and he's so good at keeping the ball that he allows the whole team to move up 25 yards every time.''

While Gomis creates space, fellow striker Lisandro has proven himself to be a top quality performer with his finishing and work rate. A fans' favourite already thanks to his style of play, the Argentine striker has formed a pivotal role in the Lyon attack and takes much of the responsibility for replacing the goals of Benzema.

His movement, positional awareness and pace allow him to be used in conjunction with Gomis, either on the left of the 4-2-3-1 that Les Gones play away from home, or alongside the Frenchman in the preferred 4-4-2. But as he showed by netting a hat-trick against Anderlecht in the second leg of the Champions League qualifiers, Lisandro is at his best when played through the middle and €24m seems a bargain already.

Described as ''a warrior'' and ''a matador'' by his team-mates, Lisandro appears to be the glue that keeps the Lyon offence together and President Jean-Michel Aulas was also glowing in his praise, telling L'Equipe: ''The coach has been innovative, and this victory rewards risk-taking in investment. Lisandro is a perfect example - an incredibly effective player.

''This pays off for our summer investments. Those who spoke a lot about us now will have time to meditate about our thoughtful choices, which has just paid off."


Another team to have overcome the potentially unsettled transfer window has been Atletico Madrid. The future of Sergio Aguero has been under the spotlight for months with Chelsea and Manchester United rumoured to be interested in taking the €45m rated Argentine out of Spain; but the side have held onto their star and it has paid off.

Atletico saw off Greek side Panathinaikos, winning 2-0 at home for a 5-2 aggregate victory to seal their place in the group stages, with Aguero starring in both legs and producing a piece of brilliance to net the final goal. He is certainly capable of playing at the highest possible level and the power and pace which he brings to the Atletico attack will be a key part of the club's push for success on all fronts this season.

In contrast, Panathinaikos, who reached the round of 16 last season, bow out of the competition before the group stages despite significant investment in their squad this summer. The acquisition of Argentinean midfielder Sebastian Leto from Liverpool and midfielder Konstantinos Katsouranis was dwarfed by the €10m fee paid for Djibril Cisse; but the Frenchman was given a straight red card against Atletico, proving that sometimes a great fee does not always guarantee a great player.

Finally, mention should be made to Hungarian club Debrecen, who will play in the prestigious group stages for the first time after defeating Bulgarian champions Levski Sofia 2-0 to add to their win 2-1 first leg victory.

The last Hungarian club to reach the Champions League group stage was Ferencvrosi in 1995-96 and while they may not be given much of chance when competing with the big-boys, credit must go to everyone at the club for their achievement.

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