A dominant AJ Auxerre only managed to defeat Swiss side Neuchâtel Xamax 1-0 in their UEFA Cup first round first-leg tie at the Abbé-Deschamps stadium.
The French team, who qualified for the European competition after finishing sixth in Ligue 1 last season, produced a stylish display epitomised by Ivory Coast playmaker Bonaventure Kalou – whose wonderful sixth-minute lob settled the match – but were unable to secure the extra cushion of a second goal. Despite a shaky opening ten minutes, when they were subjected to constant pressure, the visitors proved impressively robust in defence.
Auxerre threatened from the outset and lone striker Djibril Cissé, who scored twice in the 4-1 defeat of Bastia at the weekend, set the tone as early as the second minute, bursting clear through the inside-left channel and forcing a smart save from Patrick Bettoni, who dived low and fast to his right to turn the ball away for a corner.
The effort served as a warning as four minutes later the home team went ahead thanks to a sensational goal. Captain Yann Lachuer - a tireless presence on the right flank - retained possession on the edge of the box and toe-poked a pass to Kalou, who produced a delicately weighted chip to beat goalkeeper Bettoni.
Xamax, who dispatched Valletta FC 4-0 in the qualifying round after finishing in third spot in Swiss Nationalliga A in 2002/03, rarely looked dangerous. Stunned by the early goal, they fashioned just one opportunity before the break, Samuel Ojong forcing Fabien Cool to make a distinctly less than composed save in the 23rd minute. But if any team was going to score again in the first half it was Auxerre and Cissé's powerful strike produced a stunning save from Bettoni in the 37th minute.
Philippe Mexes had been an inspiration for the French side in the first half, but was replaced at half-time after suffering an ankle injury. It made for a more evenly-contested second half and an impatient Guy Roux, the veteran Auxerre coach, became increasingly frustrated in the dugout as his team failed to boost their advantage. Finnish midfielder Teemu Tainio went closest but somehow contrived to head over from close range in the 67th minute after an incisive build-up between Cissé and the ever-menacing Kalou. The miss means that Auxerre still have plenty of work to do when they travel to Switzerland for the return leg on 15 October.
Roux said his team were no longer odds-on to progress to the second round. "
It's neither a good or a bad result," he said. "Xamax played well but they can do better than that. We are no longer the favourites." His Xamax counterpart, Claude Ryf, was considerably more upbeat. "We have to perform better and the French team played at a higher level but I am satisfied with the result," he said.