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By Matthew Spiro in Lyon
Olympique Lyonnais coach Paul Le Guen is set to blood several young players against AC Sparta Praha after describing Wednesday's UEFA Champions League Group D encounter at the Stade Gerland as a "wonderful opportunity" for them to show their quality.
The French champions have been assured of their place in the last 16 since Matchday 4, while Sparta are out and can no longer qualify for the UEFA Cup after registering just one point from five games. Le Guen, however, insists Lyon will do their utmost to finish the group stage on a high. "It's important to keep winning for the continuity of the team," he said. "We'll try hard, not only for ourselves, but also for our supporters who have an important role to play in the season and who will be expecting entertainment."
But with two vital Ligue 1 fixtures against FC Girondins de Bordeaux and Olympique de Marseille around the corner, Le Guen will rest some star performers - including Juninho Pernambucano, Sidney Govou and Sylvain Wiltord - even though top spot in the group is attainable should Manchester United FC fail to beat Fenerbahçe SK. "I will be making changes but I won't be fielding a reserve team," Le Guen explained.
Seize the opportunity
Midfield players Bryan Bergougnoux and Jérémy Clément and striker Nilmar are among those set to benefit, and Le Guen is urging them to seize the chance. "Those three deserve to play because they impress every time they come on," he said. "The only reason they're not playing more often is because we've got a good team. It's not because they are incapable of playing at the top level. This is a wonderful opportunity for them to show their quality in the toughest competition."
The Lyon coach also confirmed that Brazilian defender Cris will not play as he is a yellow card away from suspension. With another Brazilian centre-half, Claudio Caçapa, injured, midfield player Michael Essien is likely to slot in alongside Lamine Diatta in central defence.
That means Mahamadou Diarra will be the only regular presence in central midfield, but the Malian international, who will also wear the captain's armband, is ready for the extra responsibility. "I feel as though I have been a senior player at Lyon since the tail end of last season," he said. "
I always try to push my team-mates as much as possible on the pitch and I'll continue to do that in my new role as captain."
Meanwhile, Sparta coach František Straka announced that he would be picking his strongest available team. "I can assure you that my best players will be on the pitch," he said. Defensive duo Radek Hochmeister and Marek Cech are both set to miss out with muscle injuries, although goalkeeper Jaromír Blazek is fit. "I've been suffering with an illness in the last few days," Blazek said. "But the medicine that I took has helped. I returned to training [on Monday] and I should be ready."
'A great experience'
Straka dismissed the suggestion that Sparta's campaign had been a failure and remains optimistic of finishing with a victory. "We're disappointed not to be going through but it has been a great experience," he said. "Manchester United are a very strong side, as are Lyon, though I don't think they deserved to beat us 3-1 at home. It was very close and hopefully we'll get our revenge [on Wednesday]. Our only real disappointments were the defeats against Fenerbahçe, but we'll be stronger next year thanks to this experience."
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