"When he steps up to take a free-kick I almost expect him to score," said Olympique Lyonnais defender Claudio Caçapa after another majestic set-piece goal from Juninho Pernambucano helped seal a win 2-1 win against Olympiacos CFP in the UEFA Champions League.
Buzz of excitement
Caçapa is not the only one anticipating the bulge of the net as the Brazilian sets his sights. The Stade Gerland fans greet the award of a free-kick within range of the visitors' goal like a penalty, and a buzz of excitement immediately fills the air. Juninho rarely disappoints. His strike against the Greek champions was his 55th goal in little over four seasons with Lyon, and his 21st from a free-kick.
Juninho's dead-ball delivery has become such a dangerous weapon that Lyon go into matches with a distinct advantage. Nevertheless, the modest midfielder frequently plays down the importance of his special talent. "Right now they're all going in and I hope to score a few more. But it's not my main job," he told uefa.com. "My job is to work hard and play consistently in midfield. It's up to the strikers to score the goals."
The former CR Vasco de Gama player has always been reluctant to reveal his set-piece secrets. While he studied the technique of Brazil legend Zico closely as a boy, the rest is down to "hard work and a slice of luck". One of the keys to his success is variation. Against Real Madrid CF, he arced over one free-kick for John Carew to deflect past Iker Casillas, then skated another past the wall into the bottom corner. His trademark goal came against Olympiacos, striking a shot high over the wall with so much spin that it dipped wickedly before nestling in the top corner.
Lyon goalkeeper Grégory Coupet felt sorry for his opposite number Antonios Nikopolidis. "I wanted to console him because even I can't work out how he does it," he said. According to Tiago, Juninho is the best free-kick taker in Europe because "he puts the ball wherever he wants, however he wants". Caçapa summed up the feeling of the Lyon players by saying: "I’m just pleased he plays for us and not against us." He will have Juninho with him, and against Olympiacos, again tonight in Athens.
In the summer Juninho’s future with Lyon appeared to be in doubt. The Brazilian had just one year left on his contract and the sale of Michael Essien had made him seriously consider following the Ghanaian out of French football. "I knew I only had one big contract left and I wanted assurances from the club regarding their ambitions," explained the 30-year-old. To the relief of the Lyon fans, he eventually signed an extension that ties him to the French champions until 2008. Today he insists he has no regrets. "My wish was to stay at Lyon because I love the town, I love the shirt and my family is happy here," Juninho said.
"Sometimes I wonder if I'd be even better if I played for a club like Manchester United [FC] or [FC] Barcelona, but it's impossible to know. If you ask me what I really want, I'd say
I want to play for the best club in Europe. If I can achieve that with Lyon it would be more beautiful than achieving it elsewhere."
Whatever happens in the remainder of his career, Juninho, whose visionary passing and tireless work rate are almost as impressive as his free-kicks, will go down as one of the most important players in Lyon’s history. When he moved to the Rhône valley in 2001 the club were still searching for their first French title. Four years later, he is one of a quartet of players - Caçapa, Coupet and Sidney Govou are the others - to have pocketed four championship medals.
Now the elegant playmaker is hoping to cement his status as a Lyon legend by helping the club win the UEFA Champions League. They have reached the past two quarter-finals and Juninho is convinced that given time they will succeed. "We keep gaining experience and we keep getting stronger," he said. "But we've never played a semi-final before so, even though the president Monsieur Aulas is dreaming of the Stade de France, I’d be happy to reach the last four this season."
Forcing his way back into Brazil’s FIFA World Cup side is another objective. "It's hard because Brazil have so many wonderful players. Plus when I'm picked it's usually on the right, and I'm much happier in a free role. Hopefully I'll be given another chance soon." If he continues rattling in free-kicks at the current rate, Brazil coach Carlos Alberto Parreira may be left with little choice.
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