When asked for his thoughts on Sylvain Wiltord's sensational hat-trick against Werder Bremen in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday, Olympique Lyonnais coach Paul Le Guen shrugged his shoulders and gave a short response. "Brilliant, but it doesn't surpise me," he said. "Sylvain's a class player. That's why we signed him."
Signing the French international from Arsenal FC last summer was a clear indication of Le Guen's desire to take Lyon to a new level. Ligue 1 champions for the last three seasons, the presence of an experienced campaigner like Wiltord is helping Lyon transfer their domestic dominance to the European scene.
Throughout his career Wiltord has shown an ability to rise to the big occasion. Whether he is scoring a last-minute equaliser for France in the UEFA EURO 2000™ final, or crashing the ball home at Old Trafford to seal the Premiership title for Arsenal, Wiltord rarely goes missing when his team need him most.
Home sweet home
The 30-year-old may have scored just two goals in Ligue 1 so far season, but five strikes in six Champions League matches suggest his hunger to perform on the big stage remains. On his arrival, Wiltord admitted that the lure of playing in the Champions League was a key factor behind choosing Lyon. "Having come to the end of my contract at Arsenal, I wanted a change of scenery," he said. "My preference was to move to Spain and I was in contact with [FC] Barcelona, but nothing came of it. I'm happy, though, because I'm back in my homeland and I’m also playing in the Champions League, which was my main objective."
Although Wiltord became Arsenal's record signing when he joined from FC Girondins de Bordeaux for €21m in 2000, he was not regarded as one of the frontline stars at Highbury. At Lyon he is, and the extra responsibility is reflected by the new centre-forward role that Le Guen has handed him.
Playing at the head of a 4-1-4-1 formation, Wiltord excelled against Bremen as Lyon ran out 7-2 winners to progress to the quarter-finals. "I'd never played centre-forward before this season," Wiltord said. "When I arrived at Lyon I started playing on the right, which was my position at Arsenal. At Bordeaux I used to play as a second striker, but this role is new to me."
The former Stade Rennais FC attacker has taken little time to adapt, however. "I'm enjoying it," he continued. "It's always interesting to learn something new and I feel as though I'm suited to the position." The Bremen defenders would no doubt agree.
On Tuesday, Wiltord was in devastating form against the German champions. He broke the deadlock after eight minutes, finishing clinically in the far corner after being played through. Two more chances in the second half resulted in two more goals, but it was his all-round contribution that stood out. Wiltord's ability to hold the ball up and provide a link to Florent Malouda, Govou, Michael Essien and Juninho Pernambucano, who spring forward from the midfield, is a fundamental part of Lyon's success.
"He has so much experience and he knows exactly what to do and when to do it," Malouda said after the Bremen match. His canny dummy to set up Essien for Lyon's second goal serves as a perfect example.
"I joined Lyon because they’re an ambitious club," Wiltord said earlier in the season. "With the squad we have, I'm confident I’ll win trophies here." The way Wiltord and Lyon are playing, it seems more than likely.
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