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Until this season the UEFA Champions League was a spectacle Jimmy Briand enjoyed from the comfort of his living room.
The Paris-born striker was first captivated by Europe's leading club competition in the mid-1990s when his home-town side participated on a regular basis. "I used to follow Paris Saint-Germain at the time of George Weah and Raí," the Olympique Lyonnais forward said. "Those games thrilled me."
Briand, 25, would pay particular attention to a young PSG attacker: Nicolas Anelka had just broken into the first team and quickly became a role model. "I've admired him ever since I was little," said the four-times French international who, like Anelka, attended the French Football Federation (FFF) school at Clairefontaine before joining Stade Rennais FC's academy. "I still love watching him play for Chelsea. For me, he's got everything a world-class striker needs."
Briand's most striking UEFA Champions League memory, however, is not of Anelka lifting the trophy with Real Madrid CF in 2000, but of Liverpool FC's comeback victory in Istanbul five years later. "It was an extraordinary scenario," he said. "To have a fantastic match like that as a final is just amazing."
Perhaps inspired by Liverpool's never-say-die attitude against AC Milan, Briand's Lyon side came close to conjuring a Houdini act of their own on Matchday 4. Trailing 3-0 at SL Benfica at half-time, the Ligue 1 outfit conceded a fourth goal on 67 minutes before storming back with three late strikes. "We played like schoolkids for an hour and Benfica took advantage," said Briand.
Before that setback, the €6m summer signing from Rennes had played an integral part in Lyon's perfect start to Group B, even scoring his first UEFA Champions League goal in a 2-0 home win over Benfica. Yet any illusions he might have had about the standard of the tournament were shattered in Lisbon. "It's a very special competition," Briand said. "You pay dearly for the smallest error."
Briand is now calling for complete focus at FC Schalke 04 on Wednesday. "We got a slap at Benfica so we mustn't turn the other cheek to Schalke, because there's a risk of the same thing happening," he warned. "
Schalke need points, they know they've still got a hard game at Benfica, so they'll put us under a lot of pressure with a fantastic crowd behind them. It's up to us to be clever, not to give in and to wait for the right moment to take the points we need."
One point from their two remaining fixtures would suffice to book OL's place in the last 16 for a ninth season running. They reached the semi-finals for the first time last term and, according to Briand, they can do at least as well again.
"Lyon have shown what they're capable of – perhaps the big teams are stronger this year but so are we," he said. "We need to believe in ourselves and play with our heads held high. After all, in a two-legged game anything can happen."
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