Reds in the line of fire for reborn Lyons

After losing their title and two key players, Claude Puel's side have rebuilt and are targeting success in Europe. Bad news for Liverpool, writes John Lichfield in Paris
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The Independent Online

The fans of Lyons witnessed two extraordinary events on Saturday evening. Clint Eastwood kicked a football; Lyons lost a home league match.



A 2-0 defeat against the mid-table and workmanlike Sochaux – Lyons' first loss in any competition this season – was not an ideal preparation for tonight's first visit to Anfield by France's richest club. It was hardly Clint Eastwood's fault. After scooping a ceremonial first kick high into the air, as if he thought that he was starting a match in the NFL, the Hollywood veteran loped, grinning, off the pitch and out of the Stade Gerland.

He did not miss much. Hitherto, Lyons have been a team transformed this autumn, or rather a team restored to the fluency which gave them seven French titles in a row, under four different coaches in 2002 to 2008. Despite the loss of Karim Benzema and their veteran Brazilian playmaker, Juninho, Lyons have started like a train, with six victories and two draws in Ligue 1 and two victories in the Champions' League.

On Saturday, they were tame and disjointed, as if, like Clint, they were not sure what game they were supposed to be playing.

French football pundits have attributed the club's renewed success, after a lame end to the 2008-09 season, to the intelligent reinvestment of Real Madrid's €35m (£32m) for Benzema and a rekindling of the graft and teamwork which gave Lyons serial dominance of Ligue 1 in the last decade. On Saturday, perhaps distracted by tonight's visit to Merseyside, Lyons were outfought and outmanoeuvred by Sochaux.

A couple of their more important players – the striker/winger Sidney Govou and young Bosnian midfielder, Miralem Pjanic – had been rested after the international break. Two of their new acquisitions – Lisandro Lopez, the Argentine striker bought from FC Porto for a club record €24m and Michel Bastos, a stylish Brazilian winger/midfielder bought from Lille for €18m – were playing for the first time after injury.

The Lyons players, and French football pundits, are predicting that a fitter and more focused Lyons will take the field on Merseyside tonight. If so, further evidence will have been added to the already strong case that Lyons, like Real Madrid, are a team which dances to the tune of their president, not their coach.

Claude Puel, formerly the coach of Lille, has said that his most important target this season is to regain the French title. This is understandable. In his first season at the club, he became the first Lyons coach since 2001 to finish anywhere below first.

The Lyons president, Jean-Michel Aulas, a local software millionaire, has made it clear that success in Europe is his overriding ambition. "For a club like Lyons, to play in a European final, or win a European title, would be a much greater thing than another national title," he said.

In other words, Aulas is rather bored with winning Ligue 1. After two exits from the Champions' League at the last 16 stage in the last two years – losing on both occasions to the eventual winners – Aulas believes that it is time for Lyons to claim a place among the European elite.

The success of Lyons has been built partly on the work of a series of coaches, Bernard Lacombe (1996-2000), Jacques Santini (2000-02), Paul Le Guen (2002-05), Gérard Houllier (2005-07) and Alain Perrin (2007-08). The early departure of the last four, despite domestic success, is testament to the difficulty – some say impossibility – of pleasing Aulas and pushing even the richest of French clubs into the company of the English, Spanish or Italian giants.

Aulas, with the help of his "Football adviser", the former France international striker, Bernard Lacombe, has played the transfer market brilliantly in those years. Players like Benzema, Florent Malouda, Eric Abidal, Mahmadou Diarra and Michael Essien have come up through the Lyons junior teams or been bought for small fees. They have been sold on for a huge profit and replaced from the youth ranks or by shrewd buys from other French clubs.

The purchase of Lopez, 26, from Porto signalled an attempt to push beyond this pattern and make OL a true European contender. Tonight's match at Anfield – despite impressive victories over Fiorentina at home (1-0) and Debrecen away (4-0) – is the first true test of that ambition.

Lisandro may be preferred as the spearhead of the Lyons attack to Bafétimbi Gomis, the young France striker bought from Saint-Etienne in the close season for €15m. Bastos will probably play on the left of the attack but the man to watch on European nights is often the unassuming France international, Govou, 30, who will play on the right. Govou, sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating, is now the only Lyons player to have survived seven titles, five coaches and the ever-increasing ambitions of Aulas.

As the line-up, and the Debrecen result, suggest, Lyons are not a defensive team. They will be either Good or Bad at Anfield tonight but they will not be Ugly.

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