AJ Auxerre's European experience paid off at LOSC Lille Métropole this evening as Kanga Akalé's goal on the stroke of half-time enabled Guy Roux's team to secure a slender advantage to defend at the Stade Abbé-Deschamps next Thursday.
Lille coach Claude Puel was missing midfield player Jean Makoun with a knee injury, while Roux was unable to call on defensive duo Younès Kaboul and Johan Radet. Both teams had suffered 3-1 reverses in Ligue 1 at the weekend yet remain prominently placed: Lille in third, Auxerre fifth.
Despite this being their 48th match of the season, UEFA Intertoto Cup winners Lille were not short of effort in the opening exchanges, enjoying plenty of possession without ever seriously testing Auxerre goalkeeper Fabien Cool. In spite of their injury problems in defence and a poor recent record of 13 goals conceded in their last seven games, the Burgundians resisted the pressure.
Indeed, after settling, Auxerre instigated a series of counterattacks which threatened the home side's dominance. After 14 minutes the Zimbabwean Benjani Mwaruwari met a free-kick from Bonaventure Kalou but his effort was saved by Tony Sylva. The goalkeeper was more fortunate just shy of the half-hour as Akalé's effort rebounded off the woodwork following a swift break.
The Ivorian striker finally found the net in added time at the end of the first half. A Philippe Violeau corner was not cleared by the Lille defence and Akalé made them pay, striking a beautiful half-volley beyond Sylva and into the net to silence the disbelieving home crowd.
Lille came out strongly in the second half, again full of intent and energy but lacking the penetration to find the equaliser. They could have been 2-0 down had Mwaruwari's drive not hit the angle of the bar and the post after 64 minutes following a one-two with Kalou. Lille had to wait until the 86th minute before their first clear-cut opportunity when Matt Moussilou beat goalkeeper Cool only to see his shot hit the post. It was one of those nights.
This evening was a far cry from a league fixture played here in August last year when Lille dominated to comfortably win 2-0. A repeat of that result would see Claude Puel's side progress to the last eight of the UEFA Cup, although Auxerre, and Akalé, will be waiting.