Eleven years after their competition debut, Olympique Lyonnais have finally qualified for the UEFA Champions League semi-finals by defeating FC Girondins de Bordeaux. Yet there was a surreal feel to the celebrations at Stade Chaban-Delmas – and not just because the 3-2 aggregate win had been achieved against domestic opponents. After all, Lyon's ground-breaking run has come at a time when it was least expected.
French champions for seven consecutive seasons, it was widely assumed Les Gones would ultimately succeed in Europe at some point during their period of Ligue 1 dominance. They reached the UEFA Champions League knockout stages for six seasons running only to repeatedly come up short in the latter stages.
In 2004/05, a side blessed with the talents of Michael Essien, Juninho Pernambucano, Mahamadou Diarra and Florent Malouda finished above Manchester United FC in their group before crashing ten goals past Werder Bremen. But despite these eye-catching displays, Paul Le Guen's marauding team lost on penalties to PSV Eindhoven in the last eight.
The following season Gérard Houllier seemed to have found the perfect balance between defence and attack. Revenge was gained on PSV, dismissed 5-0 on aggregate in the first knockout round. Lyon were then two minutes away from eliminating AC Milan before Filippo Inzaghi pounced. Their third quarter-final exit was followed by three last-16 losses against AS Roma, Manchester United and FC Barcelona.
OL's chance of European glory had seemingly gone. Les Girondins confirmed the end of an era by winning the French title last summer, and when Juninho and Karim Benzema joined the glittering list of star names to leave Stade Gerland, fans prepared for another season of transition. By Christmas, the club's apparent decline was kicking in. Defeats by LOSC Lille Métropole, Bordeaux and Montpellier Hérault SC in December left the Rhone outfit sixth and coach Claude Puel under pressure.
There had been encouraging performances in Europe, however. Record-signing Lisandro scored four times against RSC Anderlecht before teenager Miralem Pjanić showed a glimpse of his potential by grabbing the winner against ACF Fiorentina. Then came the landmark win at Liverpool FC in October.
If Puel had already overseen successes against Manchester United and Milan at Lille, this was his first major scalp for OL. The manner of the Anfield victory underlined the qualities of this team. With skipper Cris dazed after receiving a blow to the head, Yossi Benayoun scored. Puel had already needed to employ Jérémy Toulalan as a makeshift centre-back.
In the second half, inexperienced midfielder Maxime Gonalons replaced Cris, lining up in defence for the first time in his career. However, in times of adversity Puel's charges dig deep. They showed remarkable spirit and determination to turn the contest around, Gonalons equalising before César Delgado's late winner.
Puel's tactics have often been vindicated, although arguably his most important decision this season was to take his squad away during the winter break. Several players have described the January trip to Tunisia as a turning point. Away from the critics, and with Puel cutting his players some slack, they were able to enjoy each other's company and bond. The spirit that was a feature of old Lyon sides has returned.
In 2010, OL have lost once in 13 league games and triumphed over Real Madrid CF and Bordeaux in Europe. That has not prevented some from suggesting they are fortunate to have reached the semi-finals. Even OL sports director Bernard Lacombe conceded the current side is "less talented" than past teams after seeing them qualify without getting a single shot on target in the second leg at Bordeaux.
Laurent Blanc felt Lyon prevailed due to their extra European know-how. "You can't buy experience in a supermarket," the Bordeaux coach said. Of course he is right. Players like Cris, Anthony Réveillère, Toulalan and Kim Källström have learned from past disappointments.
Yet to put this team's success down only to experience, spirit and canny coaching would be an injustice. They also have talent. Cris and Toulalan are two of the toughest competitors around, Hugo Lloris has been sensational, while the outstanding, warrior-like Lisandro has emerged as the team's leader and match-winner.
Nobody gave Lyon a hope of beating Madrid, few expected them to get past Bordeaux, and FC Bayern München will no doubt be billed as favourites in the semi-finals. Yet playing the underdog role does not worry Lyon in the slightest. "
Sometimes a team goes all the way when nobody thinks they can," Toulalan said. "Porto did it once. Maybe we'll be next."
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