France goalkeeper Grégory Coupet believes Olympique Lyonnais' growing maturity could be the key factor in tonight's UEFA Champions League tie against PSV Eindhoven.
Lyon were European novices when Coupet joined them in 1996, but their performances have improved to such an extent that they are currently enjoying their sixth successive UEFA Champions League campaign - and should they avoid defeat at the Stade Gerland, they will have qualified for the quarter-finals for three seasons running. "The club have made remarkable progress," Coupet said. "I can remember when Lyon were playing in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, but we've made giant strides and now have considerable experience of playing at the top level."
Last year the French title-holders looked destined to enter uncharted territory as they roared into the last eight with a crushing 10-2 aggregate win over then German champions Werder Bremen. But the run was halted prematurely when, after two 1-1 draws against PSV, the Dutch side progressed on penalties.
'Buzz of excitement'
Coupet is convinced Lyon are now better equipped to defeat Guus Hiddink's team. "The more we play in Europe, the more comfortable we feel," said the 33-year-old, who had a major role in Lyon's 1-0 first-leg victory. "We're more mature than we were a year ago. In the past we might have felt nervous before such a big game, but now there's just a buzz of excitement. Our fans are also used to big matches. They sense the importance of these nights and that helps us focus."
Lyon boast an outstanding home record in the UEFA Champions League and will start as favourites against PSV, but it might have been different had Coupet not produced a commanding display at the Philips Stadion. The former AS Saint-Etienne custodian made a miraculous save as early as the second minute, showing great agility to claw Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink's header off the line, then helped combat PSV's aerial threat with a series of decisive interceptions.
'A tough test'
It was a performance in keeping with his exceptional season. "It's my job to be decisive," Coupet shrugged modestly. "It was a tough test for the whole team in Eindhoven but we were all up to the task, even if we rode our luck at times. PSV hit the woodwork twice but I feel we earned some of our luck and hopefully it'll stay with us for the second leg."
Coupet's job has not been helped by the injury crisis that has struck Lyon's defence in recent weeks. They are still without four defenders, including captain and centre-back Claudio Caçapa, but new signing Patrick Müller has settled in well alongside Cris. "It's never easy when the defence changes all the time," Coupet admitted. "The most important thing for me is to communicate all the time with my two centre-backs. Fortunately, our centre-backs are fully aware of the importance of team play."
The Lyon rearguard is likely to be severely examined again by the Eredivisie leaders. Coupet said: "We'll need to be on our mettle. They're a very tough, physical team who are always dangerous in the air, particularly from set-pieces." The first game was decided by a Juninho Pernambucano free-kick, but Coupet knows PSV possess a Brazilian dead-ball maestro of their own. "Alex hit the bar in the first leg and I've also seen the goal he scored at the weekend," Coupet said. "In terms of the power he gets on his free-kicks, he's a rival to Juninho."
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