Puel's Lyon repaying the faith
There aren't many departed managers you can imagine celebrating with their former charges in the dressing room the way Gérard Houllier did after Liverpool's 2005 Champions League final win in Istanbul. It's certainly fair to assume if Lyon were to find themselves throwing a party in the basement of the Santiago Bernabéu come May, Houllier wouldn't be invited.
While even Houllier's biggest detractors would salute his trophy haul on Merseyside, he's just one in a series of coaches to fall short of the expectations of Jean-Michel Aulas, Olympique Lyon's painfully ambitious president. Aulas got through four coaches while Lyon won seven successive titles, with Houllier paying the price for perceived tactical failings which cost Lyon further Champions League progress.
If Lyon do manage a good run in this year's Champions League (their best yet is successive quarter-finals in 2004, 2005 and 2006), it'll probably be due to them putting some trust in a coach for once. Claude Puel - the club's "general manager" to give him the official title which underlines the greater clout he possesses than his predecessors - had six highly successful years at Lille, taking them into the Champions League twice despite limited finance and facilities.
Aulas tried to bring him to Lyon at least twice before finally succeeding in summer 2008 following Alain Perrin's sacking, and though Puel's first season at the helm saw the league title go elsewhere for the first time since 2001, the players were always going to carry the can for the failure rather than the coach.
Aulas had invested too much, financially and reputation-wise, not to back his man and did so spectacularly in the summer, with the club spending €70 million - an extraordinary amount for a French club and more than anyone in Europe bar Real Madrid and Manchester City. Puel even got the better of the powerful Bernard Lacombe, the president's 'special advisor'. Lacombe said Lille's €18 million valuation of Michel Bastos was "far too high", Puel begged to differ, and got his way.
Quality comes at a cost, and last season's unceremonious dethroning left Aulas with little option. All four newcomers had real pedigree - only Bafétimbi Gomis hadn't played in the Champions League before this season, but he scored twice on his debut for France and hit four in eight for Saint-Etienne in last season's UEFA Cup. All four are 26 or under, an important element given Lyon's traditional gameplan foundered last season as Juninho's legs went, isolating the forwards from the midfield and leaving Karim Benzema to cut a frustrated figure.
Lisandro López, the record signing and Benzema's replacement, is unlikely to suffer the same fate as he is a goalscorer who is happy to drop deep to link play or to pick a pass, while Gomis is the complementary target man. Aly Cissokho is a fine attacking full-back and the replacement for Eric Abidal that Fabio Grosso never was, and with Michel Bastos completing the picture, it looked like Puel would convert to 4-4-2 with Cissokho and Bastos reprising the much-missed Abidal-Malouda left-side combo.
In reality, the thumping Champions League qualifier win over Anderlecht set the tone for the season. Puel returned to 4-3-3, with Lisandro working the left channel and Bastos cutting in from the right to use his shooting power. But the key to making this work has been Miralem Pjanic.
The 19-year-old Bosnian didn't make much of a dent in the first team in his first season, but seems inspired by his inheritance of Juninho's old No. 8 shirt, offering the dynamism needed at the tip of the midfield, along with astoundingly good technique. Since this adjustment Lyon had won nine out of ten before Saturday's surprise defeat to Sochaux, making a perfect start in Europe and returning to their habitual position at the top of the domestic table for the first time in almost six months.
At Anfield, Lyon won't suffer the stage fright that saw Bordeaux (at Chelsea last season) and Toulouse (at Liverpool in 2007) crumble on recent visits to England. They're in their tenth successive Champions League group stage, during which they've got the better of the likes of Inter, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
The good news for Benitez' boys are Lyon's problems at the back, with the central pairing of Mathieu Bodmer and Cris not really gelling and Cris' preferred partner, the injured Jean-Alain Boumsong, being badly missed (believe it or not, Newcastle fans). The shaky back line are constantly bailed out by Hugo Lloris, the new national team No. 1 and the pick of an excellent batch of young French goalkeepers currently plying their trade in Ligue 1.
For Steven Gerrard and Liverpool to take advantage of the weakness at the back , his tussle with Jeremy Toulalan will be key. Toulalan started out for France as the deputy Patrick Vieira and is now first choice. He may look like a bank manager, but Toulalan is a fierce competitor and makes the midfield tick as well protecting the defence.
Liverpool fans wary of the team's domestic commitments around this double-header should glance at Lyon's fixtures. Four days before the return match in France, Lyon have to contend with a derby visit to Saint-Etienne. The two clubs are the bitterest of rivals and while Saint-Etienne's decline on the pitch since the glory days of the 1970s is mirrored by the town's economic slump, their more prosperous and chic neighbour has added an internationally successful football club to its charms.
Yet Saint-Etienne are still closer to the hearts of the French public thanks to the European Cup exploits of Dominique Rocheteau and company thirty-plus years ago, culminating in the narrow defeat to Bayern Munich at Hampden Park in the 1976 final. "In football, Saint-Etienne will always be the city and Lyon the suburb," former Sainté president Roger Rocher said before his death a few years back. These words will always resonate until Lyon can manage to capture the imagination of the nation's football watchers with some great feat in Europe, 'un grand exploit'. They could do with starting at Anfield.