Claude Puel's youthful LOSC Lille Métropole side showed they are capable of rising to the big occasion by beating Manchester United FC 1-0 in front of a record crowd at the Stade de France last night.
Many felt Lille had made a mistake by choosing to play their Group D home matches in France's national arena after the Stade du Nord failed to meet UEFA requirements. There were serious doubts regarding the number of Lille fans that would be prepared to make the 400km round trip, while Puel himself confessed to fears that his inexperienced players could suffer stage fright.
There were signs of nerves in the goalless draw with Villarreal CF, but they had evaporated by the time Sir Alex Ferguson and his expensively-assembled team arrived in Saint-Denis. Still looking for the first goal of their campaign, Lille began at an electric pace. Tigerish midfield pair Jean Makoun and Mathieu Bodmer denied United space, while wide men Mathieu Debuchy and Geoffrey Dernis raided forward at every opportunity.
Puel had told his players not to be afraid to shoot, and Bodmer, Dernis and Matt Moussilou all failed with speculative efforts before Milenko Ačimovič converted Lille's first major chance on 38 minutes. The goal may have been more than 300 minutes in coming, but was just reward for Lille's massive following. Some 66,470 spectators were present, the biggest attendance for a French club in a European tie, and though a sizeable contingent had come from England, the vast majority were Lillois.
That beat the previous record of 58,879 for Olympique de Marseille's UEFA Cup semi-final against Newcastle United FC in 2004, and repaid Lille for the many initiatives they have introduced, such as low-cost bus transfers and discounted tickets for northern residents. Lille president Michel Seydoux said: "The attendance goes some way to justifying our choice and I'm proud Lille have broken the record. Above all, I'm happy for the players who, in taking four points from Manchester, have proved their worth at this level."
More good news came at a press conference in Lille on Wednesday. The club came a step closer to finding a new home when the local council revealed that, from 14 November, a committee would begin to assess the feasibility of seven sites to hold a 50,000-seat arena. The committee, comprising representatives of the club, supporters and elected local officials, will make their recommendation on 12 December before it is put to a council vote in February.
'Coping extremely well'
The new ground would reward the patience of the Lille supporters who have stuck with their side through trying times. "They were there for us when we needed them tonight," Puel said. "We're effectively playing our six group matches away from home, but my players are coping extremely well." Bodmer, who enjoyed another fine match, claimed Lille are getting used to the big stage. "We're no longer apprehensive of this environment and we're no longer scared," said the 22-year-old. "Recently we've played at the Stade de France, the Estádio Da Luz, Old Trafford and the Stade Vélodrome, so it's becoming a habit."
The victory puts Lille second in a particularly tight section, and Dernis knows they will be in a strong position if they beat SL Benfica in their next 'home' match. "This win has boosted our confidence," the midfielder told uefa.com. "We know now that we're capable of beating big teams." Paris's large Portuguese community will almost certainly ensure the attendance record is beaten again in three weeks, with over 56,000 tickets already sold. Lille's talented youngsters will surely be relishing the prospect.
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