By Christian Châtelet
When LOSC Lille Métropole take on AJ Auxerre in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, it will be only the second time that French teams have met in one of Europe's premier club tournaments.
Lille reached this stage with a 2-0 aggregate success against FC Basel 1893 while Auxerre were 3-2 winners over two legs against AFC Ajax. Although he "would have preferred Ajax to Auxerre in order to have the opportunity to visit their stadium", Lille coach Claude Puel will particularly relish this all-French affair.
The former AS Monaco FC player, who served the principality club from 1979-96, was involved in the only other occasion that Ligue 1 clubs faced off in top-class continental competition. That was when Olympique de Marseille encountered Monaco in the 1998/99 UEFA Cup third round, when Puel was assistant coach to Jean Tigana.
Puel will therefore be aware that the tie, to take place on 10 and 17 March, will have a special taste compared with domestic league and cup matches. It was a night to remember on 24 November 1998 as Marseille, without Fabrizio Ravanelli and Cyril Domoraud, travelled to the Stade Louis II. Robert Pires put Rolland Courbis' ensemble in front in the ninth minute, only for David Trezeguet to restore parity in the 18th minute.
Plenty of cautions
And although Marseille regained the initiative just before half-time through Titi Camara, Ludovic Giuly scored Monaco's second equaliser in the 56th minute. Both sides finished with ten men with Monaco's Franck Dumas and Marseille's Florian Maurice getting their marching orders, while eight others had their names taken - five from Marseille, three from Monaco.
The second leg a fortnight later was a tamer affair. Camara settled the tie with the only goal at the Stade Vélodrome in the 71st minute, with Monaco being a man down for the last hour following Muhamed Konjic's red card. Marseille would go on to eliminate RC Celta de Vigo in the quarter-finals, defeat Bologna FC in the last four, before succumbing to Parma FC in the Moscow final.
Lille and Auxerre will be hoping to follow in their footsteps this time around. Both clubs are well placed near the top of the French league, as Marseille and Monaco were six seasons ago. They will also meet on the last day of the Ligue 1 campaign in a potentially decisive game, and whoever prevails in the UEFA Cup could well have an advantage.
"We will need to be very cautious," said Puel, looking ahead to Auxerre's first-leg trip to the Lille Métropole stadium next Thursday. "Auxerre are never more dangerous than when they appear to be under pressure. They can also rely on a coach [Guy Roux] who is very experienced and a bit wily too."
Roux, for his part, might not have participated in the Gallic clash of 1998/99, but his decades of managerial know-how will ensure his side are also well prepared. Upon learning his team would face Lille, he said: "It's no surprise and I'm happy they are through. The more French clubs in the competition, the better." There will, however, be just one in the quarter-finals.
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