Lloris the key for Lyon's hopes
Looking forward to Olympique Lyonnais' debut in the Champions League semi-finals, former France international Willy Sagnol had one bit of advice for their opponents, his old club Bayern Munich. "My advice to Bayern is to recruit Hugo Lloris straight away," he said. "He's one of the three or four best goalkeepers in the world."
It's not beyond the realms of possibility that Saint-Etienne-bred Sagnol was having a mischievous poke at Les Verts' bitter rivals, but his reasoning was sound. "He exudes calm, and he almost never makes mistakes. He's intelligent, and at one point or another Bayern are going to need a new keeper," said Sagnol.
It's said that the number of great goalkeepers in the world is diminishing, but Lloris is certainly not part of any downward trend. A phenomenally agile shot-stopper who confidently commands his area, the 23-year-old is a quick learner. He kept clean sheets on his first-team debut for Nice (in the League Cup in 2005, at the age of 18), his Ligue 1 debut, his 2008 Lyon debut and on his bow for the senior France side, against Uruguay in November 2008.
The only surprise was that it took Raymond Domenech so long to put Lloris in his line-up, though the youngster might have made Euro 2008 as back-up had he not broken his hand just before the end of the season in a collision with future team-mate Kim Kallstrom.
Impressive as Lloris had been for Nice there was some trepidation about his ability to settle in at the Stade Gerland. Sure, OL had beaten competition from both AC Milan and Tottenham to sign the goalkeeper, but he was arriving at the French champions of seven successive seasons, where anything other than success was unacceptable. Furthermore, he was replacing a club icon in Gregory Coupet, who departed for Atletico Madrid shortly after his replacement's arrival.
The season was a virtual write-off for OL, with the squad struggling to adjust to new coach Claude Puel's methods, losing their domestic crown and only just securing a Champions League qualifying place. Lloris was the campaign's main positive. In fact, his splendid form had papered over the cracks for most of the campaign, keeping his team top for months until they were leapfrogged in March by eventual champions Bordeaux.
The goalkeeper's smooth succession has come against the odds, with OL genuinely challenged domestically for the first time in years and continuing to lose on and off-pitch leaders from their dominant era, like Coupet and Juninho. He has hardly had the most secure defence in front of him, with talismanic skipper Cris struggling both for consistency and a regularly fit and reliable centre-back partner.
Lloris has taken the opportunity to show his mettle, and has announced himself to the European stage at large with his eye-catching performances in the Champions League campaign this season. He made a string of saves against a resurgent Liverpool at the Gerland in the group stage, keeping his side in touch and only being beaten by Ryan Babel's thunderbolt before Lisandro's late equaliser clinched qualification. He kept Real Madrid at bay to allow Lyon to take a precious clean sheet to the Bernabeu for the return leg in the last 16.
Perhaps his European pièce de resistance for the season was his stunning left-handed tip away from Marouane Chamakh that prevented the Bordeaux striker bringing the score back to 2-2 in the quarter-final first leg. Lisandro crucially augmented OL's lead later on, and another left-hand block from the goalkeeper prevented Wendel's header from putting the French champions through on away goals as the second leg reached its climax.
The saves are good enough, but what really impresses players, pundits and commentators alike is the temperament of Lloris. His maturity has shone like a beacon from the beginning, which is why he permanently supplanted the more experienced Damien Gregorini at Nice just a few months on from his league debut.
Lloris is modest and quiet in the dressing room but full of character and fortitude. He gained national respect after refusing his coach Frederic Antonetti's offer of time off to turn out for Nice just two days after the death of his mother in 2008. Whenever he is praised for a performance or a fine save, he tends to simply shrug and say how he's "just doing my job." His predecessor Coupet recently gave him the ultimate seal of approval. "Hugo is the best in the world," he enthused.
He will certainly need to be in his best form when Puel's side arrive in Munich. Louis van Gaal was heading for the sack before December's emphatic win at Juventus ensured last-16 qualification and turned their season around. They have been largely irresistible since, and have in Arjen Robben one of Europe's best players at this moment.
OL have reason for optimism, however. Since their first encounter with the German giants, OL have almost become a bogey side for Bayern, losing just one in five meetings, and that in the final game of the 2008-09 group stage, with both sides already qualified for the last 16. In 2001, Sidney Govou, then a promising youngster, scored two superb goals as Bayern were battered 3-0 on their first visit to the Gerland, in the Champions League second group stage.
In November 2003, Juninho's astonishing free-kick set up a Lyonnais win in the Olympiastadion, with Bayern old boy Giovane Elber scoring the winner and then promptly breaking down in tears in one of the more unusual scenes in recent Champions League history. When the two sides last met in Germany in September 2008, they drew 1-1.
It promises to be tight this time too, though OL are enduring the near-1000km trip in a convoy of minivans, with an overnight stop in Stuttgart on Monday, thanks to the current air chaos in Europe. "It's a long time since I've been on a journey like this," said Cris on departure. "It was when I was small." If Lloris should succeed in shutting out Ribery, Robben and company at the Allianz Arena this week, perhaps Bayern will take Sagnol's suggestions on board and secure the goalkeeper a first-class return trip.