|B||Dinamo Zagreb||Chornomorets Odesa|
Pepe Mel cut an ambitious figure as he spelled out the challenge for Real Betis Balompié going into Thursday's UEFA Europa League Group I opener against Olympique Lyonnais.
The game in Seville marks Betis's first foray into continental competition since they lost in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup round of 16, and coach Mel is determined to establish his team among the elite of European football. "Our aim in this tournament is not just to compete but to win games. We want to prove Betis are among the best teams in Europe," said the 50-year-old, who negotiated a seventh-place Liga finish last term.
Visitors Lyon, of course, are regular diners at Europe's top table and pose a tricky first assignment for Mel, who billed the Ligue 1 side as pre-match favourites. "I'm expecting a competitive encounter. We have great respect for Lyon and the fact they were in the Champions League play-offs proves how good a season they had last year [finishing third]. They are favourites tomorrow," he continued.
Indeed, Mel concedes that Betis – who thrashed Czech club FK Jablonec 8-1 in the UEFA Europa League play-offs while Lyon were losing their equivalent UEFA Champions League tie to Real Sociedad de Fútbol – were drawn a rough hand in Group I.
Nonetheless, he is empowered by positive thinking. "This is a huge game for us, we are playing a team with Champions League experience," he said. "In fact, we were unlucky to draw such strong opponents, but we feel good and confident we can win. We are going to give everything in this competition and we'll prove that tomorrow."
The Verdiblancos approach matchday one boosted by Sunday's 3-1 home victory over Valencia CF, their first success of the Liga season. Lyon coach Rémi Garde said he was impressed by "a really good Betis performance", while underlining to reporters his own aspirations for the group phase. "It's the first match and a good start is always important," he said. "We will try to win. Yes, we need to be careful, but we also need to have ambition – and we have plenty of ambition in Europe."
The 47-year-old admits that OL have endured a mixed start to the campaign: in his words "a difficult situation", which includes a run of just two wins in five Ligue 1 games, including the weekend's goalless home draw with Stade Rennais FC. However, there are reasons for that inconsistency.
"We have had a lot of injuries and couldn't field the same starting XI," he said. More changes may be afoot at the Estadio Benito Villamarín, though forward Bafétimbi Gomis could provide some continuity having made his first seasonal appearance against Rennes. "Gomis is OK," said Garde. "He is confident and looks in good condition despite not having played for a long time."
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