Lyon heart

Gerard Houllier has returned home vowing to make the Champions European contenders
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The Independent Football

Last night saw the start of an important season for French football - and a season in which all eyes will be on Gérard Houllier, 57, returning to domestic club football for the first time in 17 years.

A year after being fired by Liverpool, Houllier is back in the dug-out, as "entraineur" of Lyon, the quadruple French champions. He has already won his first competitive game back in French football - a 4-1 victory away to Auxerre on Wednesday night to win the Trophée des Champions, the French equivalent of the Community Shield.

The rest of the season, starting with an away game with newly promoted Le Mans tomorrow, may not be so easy.

When Houllier became Liverpool's manager in 1998, his job was to turn around years of underachievement. At Lyon, his task is to extend four years of overachievement. No French club has ever won the championship five times in a row. Anything less - even if Houllier loses his monumental Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien to Chelsea - will be branded a failure.

Houllier, Frenchman turned scouser, turned Frenchman again, has always been a man to give verbal hostages to fortune. He once said that his Liverpool team were a few weeks from "greatness". It took several more years - and a change of manager - before they became European champions.

This week Houllier was back in the prediction business. "[Lyon] have been climbing relentlessly and I strongly believe that this club will win the Champions' League," he said. He added, no doubt thinking of the triumph that he missed by a year at Anfield, "with or without me".

Houllier's choice as the man to replace Paul le Guen was not unanimously popular with the Lyon players. Sylvain Wiltord, another Frenchman who has gone home without quite living up to his star billing in Britain, was quoted as saying "Tout sauf Houllier" (Anyone but Houllier) when Le Guen left in May.

Lyon's 3-1 defeat by Spurs in the final of a pre-season tournament in South Korea this week looked ominous. Chelsea's relentless pressure for the signature of Essien has threatened to disrupt Lyon's planning and team spirit.

"I need him. It's with players like him that you win the Champions' League," Houllier says.

The 4-1 win at Auxerre (now trained by another returned exile and former Lyon manager, Jacques Santini) was, therefore, important. Under their new coach, and despite the Asian jet lag, the team played as fluently as they did to reach the later stages of the Champions' League in the last two years. Lyon's big signing of the summer - big in every way - the Norway striker, John Carew, scored three goals.

With the frustrating Sidney Govou in good pre-season form and the Brazilian striker Nilmar available, it may yet be a case of "Anyone but Sylvain" up front for Lyon this year. Benoît Pedretti has joined an already excellent midfield, from Marseilles.

Can another French club prevent Lyon from becoming the footballing equivalent of Lance Armstrong? French football is at a turning point, both at club and national team level. France are struggling to qualify for the World Cup. The French championship, now branded Ligue 1, needs two or three consistently successful clubs - not one - if it is genuinely to close the gap with Europe's "Big Four" leagues.

There are no more excuses. A new TV rights deal with the Canal Plus cable channel kicks in this season, giving the 20 Ligue 1 clubs €453m (£312m), compared to €284m (£196m) last year. This is less than the Premiership clubs share but substantially more than the TV rights in Italy, Spain and Germany.

The other excuse put forward by French clubs for the failure to sign, or keep, their best players will disappear at the end of the season. High taxation and social charges in France make it difficult to pay high net salaries. New rules will allow clubs to pay part of a player's salary in "image rights" which qualify for tax but not social charges.

The success of Lyon and Monaco in the last two years suggested that the French league - such a goldmine of talent for clubs in other countries - may be ready to compete on level terms at last.

Houllier believes that the French league is already much better than some commentators - especially French commentators - say. "We have a tendency to denigrate what is good and sound in this country," he told France Football magazine. "In recent confrontations - look at Auxerre winning at Arsenal last season - things have balanced up. Little by little, our championship has achieved greater density and greater quality."

Attendances were up last year for the third year in succession to a 21,000 average (well behind England, Germany and Spain but comparable to Italy). The main complaint of the fans, and football writers, was that Lyon dominated from start to finish and that there were too many 0-0 and 1-0 games.

Which clubs might spoil Houllier's return but confirm his view that the French league is gaining strength? There has been an almost ritual pattern to the last few seasons. The country's two best-supported, and theoretically "biggest", clubs, Paris St-German and Marseilles have started with a new coach, new players and high hopes. By mid-October both have been in "crisis", with poor results on the field and back-stabbing in the corridors.

This season - guess what? - they both start the season with new coaches, new players and high hopes. Laurent Fournier, the new Paris St-German coach, has Vikash Dhorasoo (ex-Lyon), back from Milan. Bonaventure Kalou, the Auxerre striker, has signed for €8.5m (£5.8m).

Marseilles, under Jean Fernandez, have the one-time France striker Sabri Lamouchi on loan from Inter. Both Dhorasoo and Lamouchi are, excellent players but in their early 30s and not likely to change the recent history of either club.

The biggest challenges to Lyon will probably come from Didier Deschamp's Monaco, disappointing last year. The 2004 Champions' League finalists have bought the promising midfielder Camel Meriem from Bordeaux and have Olivier Kapo on loan from Juventus.

Something old, something borrowed, something new but untried. Lyon apart, that is what most French clubs still have to be contented with.

Houllier's brief holiday is over. He may, nevertheless, find prolonging the glory at the Stade Gerland easier than reviving it at Anfield.

Three musketeers: Leading players from clubs looking to deny Lyon another title-winning season in the French league

Ahn Jung-hwan: Metz

Ahn Jung-hwan, 29, the South Korea striker whose golden goal in the second round knocked Italy out of the 2002 World Cup, has joined Metz from Yokohama F-Marinos in the Japanese league, where he was a prolific scorer. Will he add to the successful Asian invasion of Europe?

Vikash Dhorasoo: Paris St-Germain

Vikash Dhorasoo, 31, the France international midfielder, has returned from Milan, where he successfully - on and off - challenged bigger names for a place in the starting line-up. He will be a sure starter at Paris St-Germain - but is the rest of the team up to his quality?

Matt Moussilou: Lille

Matt Moussilou, 23, scored 12 goals in the league last season - 20 in all - to help Lille to the runners-up place. He decided to stay with the club and play in the Champions' League. He could replace Didier Drogba - whose style he resembles - as the hottest young striker in the French league