After the savaging, Houllier is thriving in Lyon's den

With the disappointment of his departure from Anfield 18 months ago a receding memory, the former Liverpool coach is turning France's champions into a major force in Europe. In a rare interview, he talks to Paul Newman
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Some in his position would no doubt have left the training session - particularly one involving no more than an extensive warm-up and a prolonged game of head tennis - in the hands of others. Gérard Houllier, however, is enjoying every moment of his first season for 17 years back at the helm of a French club.

The same seems to be true of his players, though they were not so sure last May when Paul Le Guen left after three hugely successful years as coach. Sylvain Wiltord, one of the Lyon players, was reported to have said "tout sauf Houllier" ("anyone but Houllier") when asked about possible replacements. The former Liverpool manager, however, duly took charge, 12 months after his six-year reign ended at Anfield.

If the players took a little convincing last summer, the spirit in the Lyon squad now is demonstrated at the training session by three of their Brazilians. Juninho, Cris and Fred, who might have been forgiven for treating a game of head tennis in the bone-chilling cold with less than whole-hearted enthusiasm, are the most competitive of all the three-man teams. They hotly dispute the rules, play with grace and gusto, and pose for mock celebration photographs after Juninho's spectacular winning overhead kick. A beaming Houllier clearly approves.

The coach and his team have good reason to smile. Lyon have lost just once in 35 competitive matches this season. They lead the French League by seven points with a game in hand, are through to the last 16 of the French Cup and next week travel to PSV Eindhoven in the knock-out phase of the Champions' League, having qualified with five wins and a draw. The latter came away to Real Madrid, who had been roundly beaten 3-0 at the Stade Gerland.

In the privacy of his office an hour after the training session, Houllier agreed he had been on a hiding to nothing when he succeeded Le Guen. "It was a huge challenge," he said. "I knew that finishing second in the league would be failure. Our priority this season is to win the title for the fifth year in a row, because no French club has ever done that before. Another goal was to go further in the Champions' League than the club had gone before."

Houllier's early days were overshadowed by a familiar foe as Chelsea succeeded in their long-running pursuit of his key midfielder, Michael Essien. "The first month was difficult, until the transfer window closed," Houllier said. "Some players wanted to leave, some didn't know what would be happening to them." Losing Essien was a setback - "Michael was very popular with the fans and in the dressing-room. He's a very nice guy and an outstanding player" - but the consensus is that Houllier's work in the transfer market last summer made Lyon stronger than ever.

Tiago Mendes, arriving from Stamford Bridge as part of the Essien deal, and Benoît Pedretti, signed from Marseilles, bolstered the midfield, while Sylvain Monsoreau (from Sochaux) and François Clerc (from Toulouse) provided more options in defence. The most significant signings were in attack, with Fred joining from Cruzeiro and Norway's John Carew moving from Besiktas to challenge Sidney Govou, Sylvain Wiltord and the emerging youngsters Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema for the striking positions.

"Last year Lyon's results seemed to depend more on the midfielders than the forwards," Houllier said. "Players like Essien and Juninho were often the match-winners. Now the goals are spread around more, and it's the forwards who are scoring most, which is how it should be. If you want to win big things you have to have top-class strikers - and that's what I believe we have."

There were times at Liverpool, particularly when Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen were vying for forward places, when Houllier's rotation policy seemed counter-productive, but the coach remains committed to a large squad.

"Everybody contributes to the team's success," he said. "The team's and the club's success count above everything else. It's important that players realise that - and ours do. Collective success will have a very good effect on a player's individual career. I've told the squad that it's important for us to be able to call on fresh players at certain times. Tactically, it's important to have that option.

"What was difficult was that it was a new concept here. The press would always be putting questions to players who weren't playing or were on the bench. For example, Sidney Govou had been starting regularly until I put him on the bench because I needed a different tactical option with Sylvain Wiltord one day. The following day the press were asking Sidney what he thought about being left out. He replied that it was the success of the team that was more important. That pleased me."

What else has Houllier changed? "I think I've brought more control. The team were playing at 70mph all the time. I told them that sometimes it's better to play at 50mph or 40mph and then occasionally to play at 100mph. I think now we're more in control of the tempo. In those circumstances you can control a game more easily, even when you don't have the ball. I think I have improved the mental side of the game as well. I think we're stronger mentally. We're a more disciplined team."

The mental strength is demonstrated by a series of spirited comebacks. Lyon have won seven and drawn five matches this season in which they have conceded the first goal, including their most recent game at Lens last weekend, when Wiltord equalised in injury time. Their only defeat (apart from a loss on penalties to Nantes in the League Cup) came in their last match before the fortnight's Christmas break, losing 3-1 at home to Lille in the league.

"The most important game for us was the next match, because I believe a good team doesn't lose two matches in a row," Houllier said. His side duly obliged with victory away to Strasbourg in the first match of the new year, although they could do with beating Nantes tonight after a run of three successive league draws in which their forwards in particular have struggled. "For a team that likes to play with the ball it's difficult when the weather is bad," Houllier said by way of explanation.

The biggest test will come in the Champions' League next week. PSV knocked Lyon out at the quarter-final stage last season and Houllier knows this is a chance to prove that he can do even better than Le Guen.

His one major concern is a series of injuries to defenders, which only increased his disappointment at failing to sign Mikaël Silvestre from Manchester United last month. Although Eric Abidal is expected to return tonight after three months of unavailability, Anthony Réveillère, Claudio Caçapa, Monsoreau and Jérémy Berthod all remain absent.

This week's Deloitte report into the finances of football ranked Lyon as the 15th-richest club in the world. They earn more than the likes of Celtic, Valencia and Lazio, although six English clubs remain above them in the money table.

It is a remarkable turnaround by a club which had little tradition of success until the current president, Jean-Michel Aulas, arrived in 1987 and turned them into the most popular team in France.

Moreover, while their current domination draws inevitable comparisons with Chelsea, Lyon have achieved their pre-eminence through astute management, good recruitment and a close relationship with the local city authorities rather than through their majority shareholder's personal wealth.

On his return Houllier has been encouraged by the progress made in French club football since he last managed at this level here, with Paris St-Germain 17 years ago.

"It's a lot better and it's getting stronger and stronger," he said. "The level of the good clubs has improved a lot. You can see that by their performances in European competitions. Monaco were in the Champions' League final two years ago.

"Lyon have been in the Champions' League for several seasons and we've qualified for the knock-out phase again this season. Monaco, Marseilles, Lille, Strasbourg and Lens are still in the Uefa Cup.

"The structure of the clubs - and their financial strength - has improved a lot. There's been more television money since last summer and we're better able to compete with clubs from other countries. On that level we're up with the English clubs now."

English football in general and his former club in particular are the only subjects Houllier is unwilling to discuss in any depth. "I still regard myself as a Liverpool supporter and I always look out for their results," he said. "I do keep in touch, but I'm very busy with my job here."

Does he believe Lyon can become the first French team - other than Marseilles, who were stripped of their 1993 crown after a corruption scandal - to win Europe's greatest prize? "Once you've reached the knock-out phase every team has a chance," Houllier said. "You saw that with Liverpool last season. All you have to do is believe that you have a chance."

Lyon's dream season unfurls


P6 W5 D1 L0 GF13 GA4

Lyon 3 Real Madrid 0

Rosenborg 0 Lyon 1

Lyon 2 Olympiakos 1

Olympiakos 1 Lyon 4

Real Madrid 1 Lyon 1

Lyon 2 Rosenborg 1


1. Lyon: P25 W16 D8 L1 Pts56

2. Bordeaux: P26 W13 D10 L3 Pts49