Patrice Lair is happy to have added more steel to Olympique Lyonnais, yet the coach will urge them to play with attacking freedom in Thursday’s UEFA Champions League final against 1. FFC Frankfurt at Munich's Olympiastadion.
After crushing 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam 5-1 in the first leg of last month’s semi-final, the holders stood on the brink of a third straight decider. Overconfidence was the only concern, yet there was never really any danger of complacency creeping in.
"We've got a very demanding coach," midfielder Camille Abily noted. "He'll keep us focused." Abily was right. The German champions came out fighting in the second leg, but Lyon resisted and held on for a plucky goalless draw.
The French titleholders have still not lost in Europe over two seasons under Lair – a source of great pride for the 50-year-old coach. "I was pleased we didn't lose in Germany," the ex-Montpellier Hérault SC boss told UEFA.com. "It was a challenge for the girls to stay unbeaten. Now I hope we're still unbeaten at the end of the evening of 17 May."
The Rhone Valley outfit were already dominating domestically when Lair replaced Farid Benstiti in 2010; the challenge was to transfer that success to the European scene. "I knew we'd only compete with the best if we became more powerful and more explosive," Lair explained. "That's why I brought a specialist fitness coach with me. We did a lot of cardiovascular work. The girls now jump higher and run faster."
As they showed in Potsdam, Les Fenottes no longer get outmuscled by German opponents. Lair believes a balance has been struck, saying: "Technically and tactically, we're as good as the others. Now we can also be as physical. There's a lot of variety to our game: we can play defensively or in an attacking way, we can spring forward at pace or construct patiently. We have an excellent defensive platform and speed and power in attack. It's a good combination."
Both facets of OL's game were apparent in the semi-final: they were dynamic and ruthless at home, then well-organised and dogged away. "I don't think three or four years ago a French team could have beaten a German team by such a big margin," the coach said.
Lair is well placed to judge. He was in charge of the Montpellier side that beat Frankfurt 1-0 away in the 2006 semi-final, only to lose 3-2 at home. "We were heroic in Germany, winning despite being dominated," he recalled. "We weren't as strong as today's Lyon, but we could've become the first French club to win the Champions League. Unfortunately Sonia Bompastor and Camille Abily [both now at Lyon] picked up cards and missed the second leg. In the end, we weren't quite good enough."
Abily and Bompastor will be present in Munich, along with a host of international stars. Nowadays Lair has enough attacking flair at his disposal to unsettle any team in the world, and he seems determined to take the game to Frankfurt.
"We have a lot of talent and power, and we'll try to use this," he vowed. "I may be a disciplinarian when it comes to defending, but in the attacking third I want my players to do their own thing. I want them to surprise me with a shot, a dribble or a nutmeg.
"This sport is about pleasure after all. I like nothing more than standing on the touchline, watching the girls enjoying themselves and scoring. Sometimes you have to give them total freedom." Frankfurt have been warned.
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