Lyon fear conspiracy more than rivals in title hunt

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The Independent Football

The whirlwind start of the French football season this weekend, 26 days after the World Cup, is a conspiracy to undermine the serial champions, Lyon, the club's president protested yesterday.

In an extraordinary attack on other French clubs, Jean-Michel Aulas, said: "We are a victim of anomalies and iniquities... Our first opponent is the Ligue de Football Professionel and the representatives from other clubs who are using any ammunition they can find against us."

Nine Lyon first-team players are still recovering from their exertions in Germany and were unavailable for the opening game of the French season, away to Nantes last night.

Lyon, who have won the French title for the last five seasons, under three different managers, asked for the match to be postponed. The league refused.

In an interview with the newspaper Le Figaro, Aulas, the man whose ambition and drive have pushed Lyon to the fringe of the European élite, said: "It seems as if the League is trying to weaken Lyon... We are also playing away in three out of our first four games. If any other club had been treated in this way, the press would have been shrieking."

The Lyon and ex-Liverpool manager, Gérard Houillier, was forced to play a weakened team at Nantes but could call on three expensive and promising recruits from other clubs. With no significant departures and the arrival of Jérémy Toulalan (from Nantes) and Kim Kallstrom (from Rennes and Sweden) and the defender Sébastien Squillaci (from Monaco), Lyon still look odds-on to retain the French title which they won by 15 points last season. Aulas is also hoping to prise David Trezeguet from the rapidly emptying dressing-room at Juventus.

The rest of the French clubs kick off this afternoon or this evening. Only Bordeaux - and more doubtfully, the perennially underachieving Paris St-Germain - look capable of challenging Lyon's 21st-century domination of French football.

Another championship would make Lyon the first club in one of the five main European leagues - France, England, Italy, Spain and Germany - to win six titles in a row. Another Lyon stroll would begin to cause supporters - and more importantly Canal Plus, the cable television giant which bankrolls La Ligue - to doubt the competitiveness of French football.

This would be a pity. The rise of Lyon, who have been Champions' League quarter-finalists in the last three seasons, should be seen as a sign of the growing strength, not weakness, of the French domestic game.

The France team which reached the World Cup final had four or five players from La Ligue (compared to only one in the 1998 world champion team). None of these players - including Eric Abidal and Florent Malouda from Lyon - has been gobbled up (yet) by big-money clubs abroad.

Even Franck Ribéry, the impish and inexhaustible revelation for France in Germany, will remain with Marseilles for the time being. He will be joined at the Stade Vélodrome by Djibril Cissé from Liverpool, once he has recovered from his broken leg.

Ribéry wanted desperately to move. He had set his heart on going, not to Arsenal or Bayern Munich (both interested) but to Lyon. Here was another sign that the largesse from Canal Plus, and a slight easing of the tax burden on French clubs, is beginning to end the days when French football was Europe's greatest talent-hunting ground for foreign, mostly English and Italian, managers.

In this close season, the talent flow has been, on the whole, into France, rather than across the Channel or the Alps. Lyon managed to hold on to Mahamadou Diarra, their great defensive midfielder from Mali, despite the efforts of Manchester United and Real Madrid. Johann Micoud has returned to Bordeaux from Werder Bremen. Jan Koller of the Czech Republic will play for Monaco, once he has recovered from his injury in the World Cup first phase.

The three promoted clubs - Lorient, Sedan and Valenciennes - are regarded as favourites to return to the second division. Valenciennes, back in the French top flight for the first time since the Lyon-Valenciennes match-fixing scandal of 1993 - have managed to recruit only in what France Football magazine called politely a "homeopathic" way. The northern club will struggle to survive.

All the others will struggle to cope with Lyon.

Three musketeers: Players to watch in Ligue 1

* FRANCK RIBERY

(Marseilles) Pacy and skilful winger who excelled at the World Cup. Touted by French journalists as the "next Zidane". Has recently pledged his future to Marseilles.

* MAHA-MADOU DIARRA

(Lyon) Mali international who has been linked with several big clubs. His aggressive, combative style meant Lyon barely missed Michael Essien.

* JAN KOLLER

(Monaco) The 6' 8" Czech striker is always a threat. Steps into the role left free by Christian Vieri's departure. He will leave a trail of bruised defenders in his wake.

LIGUE 1

Today

AS Nancy v Monaco (6.0)

Auxerre v Valenciennes (6.0)

Bordeaux v Toulouse (6.0)

Le Mans v Nice (6.0)

Lens v Troyes (6.0)

Paris St-Germain v Lorient (6.0)

Rennes v Lille (3.15)

St-Etienne v Sochaux (6.0)

Tomorrow

Sedan v Marseilles (4.0)

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