LOSC Lille Métropole coach Claude Puel believes his young team have benefited from their UEFA Champions League experience and is hoping they will continue to make progress in the UEFA Cup.
Only two Lille players had any previous UEFA Champions League experience, and many in France feared for the northern club when they were pitted against Manchester United FC, SL Benfica and Villarreal CF in Group D. But Puel's side soon found their feet on the European stage with the tremendous work ethic and spirit which have characterised their emergence as one of France's leading teams. And they very nearly defied the odds by reaching the last 16.
Needing victory at Villarreal on Matchday 6, Lille dominated for long periods at El Madrigal, only to concede a goal to Antonio Guayre midway through the second half. It proved an insurmountable blow for Lille who nonetheless finished above United to seal their UEFA Cup place. "The players can look back without regret because they gave everything," said club president Michel Seydou. "We finished above United which is an achievement in itself. If you had told me that'd be the case before the competition began I wouldn't have believed you."
For Puel, the Villarreal game highlighted his side's strengths and weaknesses. While the speed, determination and stamina of the Lille players denied their Spanish opponents space, they failed to transfer superiority into goals and were ultimately punished for a lack of efficiency in the final third. "All six matches have swung on small details," Puel said. "Away against Benfica and Villarreal we created several chances but failed to score. Our opponents had two openings but they both scored."
The statistics hammer home Puel's point. Their defence, expertly marshalled by goalkeeper Tony Sylva and centre-back Efstathios Tavlaridis, shipped just two goals in Group D, but Milenko Ačimovič's Stade de France strike against United, which secured Lille's only win, was all they had to show for their attacking efforts.
Some have questioned Puel's insistence on playing just one forward, while others feel Matt Moussilou's lack of goalscoring form was the principal problem. But the coach does not regret his tactical choices. "Our great strength is our collective play and we use a system that exploits this," he explained.
'We lacked coolness'
"We don't have a player who will bury his first or second chance," added Puel. "
It's no coincidence that 13 different players have scored for us this season. In Europe everything happens that little bit quicker, and we just lacked the coolness required to make that final pass or shot."
UEFA Cup goal
Lille's players were also able to look beyond the disappointment of exiting the tournament. "I'm happy we've qualified for the UEFA Cup," midfielder Mathieu Bodmer said. "Against Villarreal we created chances once again. We hit the bar. But as usual we didn't finish moves off." Defender Matthieu Chalmé added: "We're just lacking that little something. The UEFA Cup gives us another opportunity to work on the problem."
Puel, meanwhile, is keen to look at the bigger picture. "I'm in the middle of a project that involves bringing through young players, helping them to learn the profession and develop into finished products," he said. "Our next goal is to stay in Europe for as long as possible and qualify for next season's UEFA Champions League. We want to stay at this level and learn from this experience."
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