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Lyon's chance to set the record straight

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Phil Minshull | 07:45 UK time, Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Lyon, in many people's eyes, have been the best French team of the last decade with their seven back-to-back Ligue 1 titles between 2002 and 2008 but have, until now, also been the great underachievers as well.

With annual opportunities to put French club football on the European map, Olympique Lyonnais - to give them their proper title - have crashed out of the Champions League on the last three occasions at the first knockout stage.

Before that, they did reach the quarter-finals for three consecutive seasons but that has been the height of their achievement until now.

However, current coach Claude Puel has done what predecessors such as Paul Le Guen and Gerard Houllier, both of whom will be familiar to British football fans, had failed to do and has taken Lyon that one step further.

Lisandro Lopez has scored 13 league goals by Lyon this seasonLisandro Lopez has scored 13 league goals for Lyon this season

Whether they can become the first French team to make the Champions League final since the modest but inspired Monaco did so in 2004, before losing 3-0 to Jose Mourinho's impressive Porto side, remains to be seen but certainly they have a good chance.

Puel's men go into their semi-final first leg against German league leaders Bayern Munich on Wednesday as the slight underdogs but after getting past Real Madrid in impressive fashion in the last 16, before getting the luck of the draw and coming out of the hat against their faltering compatriots Bordeaux in the quarter-finals and vanquishing them relatively easily, they are unlikely to be overawed.

Around the same time I started writing this blog on Monday evening, the Lyon squad embarked on their 360-mile journey to Munich in a fleet of mini-vans because of the flight disruption caused by the volcanic ash saga.

The French media have given journey updates, almost every time the motorised wagon train stopped at a service station.

However, whatever detrimental effects the lengthy trip will have are likely to be outweighed by Lyon playing the second leg next week in front of nearly 40,000 of their own fans at the Stade de Gerland.

Lyon's extended progress on the continental stage, rather than domestic success, this season can be partly attributed to their summer signings.

The club's president Jean-Michel Aulas, who took over in 1987, did not stint on the spending although he has done a good job, unlike some other clubs around Europe, of balancing the books.

He paid Porto a combined €39 million (£34m) for the pair of Lisandro Lopez and Aly Cissokho, much of which was covered by the sale of Karim Benzema to Real Madrid for €35m (£30.7m), and also acquired another six supporting cast, effectively paid for by selling Abdul Kader Keita to Galatasaray for €10m (£8.7m).

It was almost inevitable, with such a turnover of players, that Lyon were going to take their time to gel but by the middle of the season things started to click and while their fans last season were bemoaning Puel's unattractive tactics, there has been much less cause for complaint during this campaign.

Lopez and Cissokho have certainly been worth their money since December and been potent force up front. Along with French international striker Sidney Govou, the ever-improving young goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and a tough-as-teak midfielder Jeremy Toulalan, Lyon have started to look like credible challengers for European honours since the start of the year even if they are the least favoured of the four semi-finalists to triumph in the Champions League final in Madrid on 22 May.

Admitted, Lyon have not looked particularly impressive in their away games in recent weeks, apart from a good 2-1 win at Stade Rennais at the start of the month, but my interpretation of this situation is that they have been focusing on Europe.

Should Lyon actually go on to win the Champions League it would also help set straight an awkward bit of history.

On 26 May 1993, Olympique Marseille defeated a surprisingly lacklustre Milan 1-0 to clinch the first edition of the Champions League and become the first, and still only, French side to take Europe's premier club trophy.

However the Marseille president Bernard Tapie and a midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie at the club were later found guilty of bribing another French first division team Valenciennes to throw a game and secure the club the Ligue 1 title early, thereby giving Marseille more time to prepare against their Italian rivals.

Part of the deal was that Valenciennes would also go easy on Marseille to ensure that there were no injuries ahead of the final against Milan.

As the sordid details emerged over the following 12 months, Marseille were stripped of the league title from the previous year and relegated to the French second division.

The hugely controversial Tapie was later convicted for two years for his involvement in the affair.

However, Uefa has always maintained that since the bribery related to domestic fixtures, Marseille could keep their Champions League title even if, as Uefa wrote in one of its own publications in 2005 to celebrate 50 years of the European Cup and Champions League, "Marseille's euphoria would soon evaporate amid revelations of bribery and corruption."

Lyon's success would go someway to cleanse the bad taste that this episode, in my opinion one of the most scandalous in post-war European club history, continues to leave in my mouth and that of many other football fans.

Curiously, bringing things full circle, Marseille currently stand on top of the French first division from their nearest rivals Auxerre by five points with three games to go and stand poised to lift their first French title since the one that was taken away from them.

Comments on the blog in the space provided below. Other questions on European football to I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.

Q) I want hear your thoughts on Alessandro Nesta of Milan. Being injury prone, many (apart from Italian football fans) don't see him as a top defender at 34.
Tahir Patel, New York

A) Nesta may not have played for Italy since the 2006 World Cup finals but may yet feature in South Africa. The story is this. He went into self-imposed international exile after Germany, partly to try to limit the amount of injuries he suffered. However, earlier this season, and with him in great form for Milan, Italian national coach Marcello Lippi is believed to have asked him to reconsider his decision. Lippi's predecessor Roberto Donadoni failed to persuade him to change his mind two seasons ago but the World Cup may prove to be a bigger lure than Euro 2008. Personally, after what he's done for Milan this season, I believe that Nesta would be a fantastic asset for Italy but there has been no real indication so far that he is about to change his mind.

Q) What do you make of Ever Banega's performances for Valencia this season and what impact can he have if he is selected for Argentina's world cup squad?
Leonard Mvaya, Blantyre, Malawi

A) The two words that spring to mind are mixed and mercurial. He's come back and established himself as a member of Valencia's starting line-up after an indifferent loan spell at Atletico Madrid last season; he works hard in the midfield but not always effectively. His volatility off and on the field has also drawn criticism. With so many options to choose from, and he certainly seems to have tried them all out, I doubt whether Diego Maradona will include him in his squad going to South Africa as he hasn't quite yet fulfilled his youthful promise displayed when he was part of the Argentina team that won the 2007 Under 20 World Cup.


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