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LOSC Lille Métropole coach Claude Puel is hoping his side's collective strength will help them secure their second consecutive win at the Stade de France against SL Benfica on Tuesday.
The French club boosted their hopes of progress from Group D when they claimed their first victory of the campaign against Manchester United FC. After a slow start that included an opening-night defeat by Benfica, Lille's inexperienced players have grown in stature. "It's a logical progression," Puel said. "At the start my players were complete novices discovering a new competition, but they've gradually found their feet."
'A serious team'
And Puel believes his hard-working team are starting to gain respect in Europe after taking four points from United on Matchdays 3 and 4. "I think our status has changed," he said. "People no longer regard us as minnows. We're considered a serious team."
The former AS Monaco FC boss hopes Saturday's 3-2 reverse at AJ Auxerre will serve as a timely warning. "Our great strength is our collective play and we mustn't forget that. We saw against Auxerre what can happen when you take your eye off the ball. Benfica have some great individuals and if we don't show humility we'll be punished."
Second-placed Lille could seal qualification with a game to spare if they win and United slip up at home to leaders Villarreal CF. But Puel said: "I'm not thinking like that. As soon as the draw was made, I said everything would go down to the final match. I still believe that, because United will come back into contention."
One of the revelations of Lille's challenge has been Mathieu Bodmer, a commanding presence in midfield. The talented Frenchman, who turns 23 on Tuesday, was keen to emphasise the tie's importance. "If we win then Benfica won't be able to catch us and we'll be certain of UEFA Cup qualification at least," he said.
Bodmer will continue his outstanding partnership with Jean Makoun, but Lille are without wide men Mathieu Debuchy and Daniel Gygax and striker Peter Odemwingie, all of whom are injured. Teenage forward Kevin Mirallas could get his first UEFA Champions League start, with Matt Moussilou continuing in the central striking role.
Benfica have worries of their own. Influential winger Simão is out after sustaining a thigh strain in Saturday's 3-2 loss at SC Braga, while Fabrizio Miccoli, whose added-time header defeated Lille in September, has only recently returned from a hamstring problem. Coach Ronald Koeman insists the Italian marksman is back to full fitness, but the Dutchman is likely to opt for top scorer Nuno Gomes as a lone frontrunner.
'A pivotal stage'
Koeman is calling on his players to show more aggression. "We were outfought at times against Braga and we cannot afford to let the same thing happen," he said. "We've reached a pivotal stage - everything that happens now will be crucial. The game will be won and lost in the small details and I hope we get that little bit of luck you need at this level."
Paris's large Portuguese community will ensure the Stade de France is close to capacity, and Benfica's French-born midfielder Petit said: "It will give us a lift to see so many Portuguese people in the stands.
Winning away in the Champions League is really difficult, but this will be more like a home game for us."
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