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Oct 27, 2009

Lyon on the prowl again

Lyon coach Claude Puel usually displays the sort of diplomatic skills that surely have him earmarked for political greatness should he ever opt to swap the dugout for the ballot box.

Earlier this season, though, the tight-lipped OL boss stepped off his well-worn fence to claim his team had hand-picked Bordeaux and not Marseille to succeed them as Ligue 1 champions last May.

"We played well for a month, especially at Marseille. Everyone said they were going to be champions, and we stopped them. We elected our successor," noted Puel, not without a slight excess of pride over his team's 3-1 win at the Stade Vélodrome in the third last game of the campaign. The sense now, though, is that last season's kingmaker wants his crown back.

What Liverpool fans only discovered to their surprise last week is something that French football aficionados have quietly had to admit since the start of the season - the current Lyon squad is really rather good.

A third-place finish in his first season in charge at Lyon was judged acceptable by both the demanding Puel and his even more demanding bosses, but after seeing Laurent Blanc's Girondins put an end to seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles, the powers-that-be at Stade Gerland are getting that championship-winning itch once again.

When club president Jean-Michel Aulas remarked not without irony that it was "a minor miracle" his team were at the top of the league a couple of weeks ago, there was also an element of truth in the sense that no-one prior to the start of the season was talking about OL as potential title-winners.

For a team that has won seven of the last eight championships that may seem something of an oversight, but it was hardly surprising given the summer the club has just gone through.

Karim Benzema decided he would prefer to share the showers with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kakà rather than Jean-Alain Boumsong and Sidney Govou while dead-ball caresser surpreme Juninho headed for the deluxe footballers' retirement home known as Qatar.

The loss of two iconic players made fans and pundits fear the worst, but Puel clearly knew what he was doing.

"When you've got players like Karim and Juni, you tend to rely on them too much and put in less effort, take less responsibility," said Puel, who made his name instilling a Thatcherite work ethic into his players at Lille.

With the chaff of the squad, such as Portsmouth new boy Frédéric Piquionne, also cleared out, Puel has begun to construct a real team around - and spot the obvious connection here - former Lille men Mathieu Bodmer and Jean II Makoun as well as Lyon stalwart Govou, who again found no takers when he made himself available this summer.

The unassuming Bodmer is symbolic of the lack of 'star' egos in the dressing room, surrendering his ambitions of making it as a midfielder and caving in to Puel's insistence that his best position is centre back. The result has been a solid pairing with Brazilian stopper Cris to help make the back four one of Ligue 1's surest prior to them suffering a massive post-Champions League hangover with a shock 4-1 defeat to Nice last weekend.

Bodmer, though, missed that match through injury, adding his name to the long list of crocked centre halves that left impressive holding midfielder Jérémy Toulalan and untested youngster Maxime Gonalons to hold the fort at Anfield.

Gonalons, who almost lost a leg when he picked up a bacterial infection last year, not only showed poise befitting a trench-weary veteran in front of the Kop, but also highlighted Puel's penchant for giving youth its head.

The churlish would - with some justification - point out that Gonalons' emergency inclusion was merely the consequence of there simply being no other solution, but Puel's track record suggests there was more to the decision than naked desperation.

A fledgling Lille team - "Puel's Puppies", perhaps - including Bodmer and Makoun beat both Manchester United and AC Milan in the Champions League during Puel's tenure in northern France's favourite Eurostar stop and the trend has continued at OL.

"There is a desire to put our trust in the youngsters and give them some playing time," said Puel, who has installed a shadow first-team squad known as PRO2 under former OL and Barcelona forward Sonny Anderson, the perfect ante-chamber for the club's up-and-coming prospects. "We have had to use them sooner than we would have liked, but it fits in with our philosophy."

Perhaps the best demonstration of that mantra is the blossoming of Miralem Pjanic this season. Despite the obvious desire of headline writers for the Bosnia-Herzegovina international to be purchased in a crisis, the teenager was far from a "Pjanic" buy when he was brought in from Metz, one of France's great footballing factories, in the summer of 2008.

Aulas and OL are universally despised around France for their professionalism and business-like manner - in stark contrast to the anarchic and frequently amateurish shenanigans at more popular clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille and arch-rivals Saint-Etienne - and Pjanic is the ideal demonstration of the foresight that puts the club streets ahead of all but Bordeaux.

With Juninho closer to the end of his career than the start, Pjanic was brought into the club with a view to replacing the Brazilian when he was ready, allowing him to be shaped from inside the club to take on the mantle rather than having to make the gargantuan step from Ligue 2 to the Champions League overnight. The result has been spectacular, with Pjanic - who grew up in Luxembourg after his parents fled the Balkan wars - putting in performances that have evoked favourable comparisons with his predecessor as the side's creative muse.

"His vision is excellent, and he has the technical ability to go with it," said Puel after seeing Pjanic score a Juninho-esque free-kick and set up two more goals from dead-balls in OL's 4-0 Champions League win over Debrecen in September.

"At 19 years old, he's on the right track. He listens, and shows determination and ambition. He has a lot of character and the right attitude to continue working. He's patient, but is here to impose himself: He's not backward in coming forward."

While Pjanic - who Puel concedes needs "to put on some muscle" - is the new Juninho, Bafétimbi Gomis is the new Benzema.

After being the winner of the "Pascal Chimbonda Surprise Inclusion in a Major Tournament Squad Award" for Euro 2008, Gomis struggled in an equally inept Saint-Etienne side last season.

A big-money summer move to the Stade Gerland - the equivalent of swapping Manchester United for Liverpool - hardly boded well given the rough ride Piquionne, another Saint-Etienne old boy, had been given by OL fans.

However, important goals against PSG and Toulouse have seen Gomis win over the doubters while the club's record signing Lisandro Lopez has been successful inbetween frequent visits to the club's treatment room.

Add to these the purchases of the excellent left-footed Brazilian Michel Bastos from Lille, the Argentine slayer of Liverpool César Delgado and the over-priced but nonetheless effective Aly Cissokho from Porto and Lyon have built a side shorter on star names than last season, but stronger as a whole.

Even a first defeat of the season to Sochaux, three days before their trip to Merseyside, failed to dislodge Puel's men from top spot in Ligue 1, though they did tumble down to third after their surprise mauling on the south coast last Saturday.

"Every team that plays Lyon ups their game," explained Puel, who wrote off the game at Nice as "a match to forget". He added: "There's a positive dynamic since the start of the season - we have to try and feed it. We remain focused on our ambition of winning every match." Ligue 1 and Europe, you have been warned.

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