A UEFA Champions League winner in 2001, former FC Bayern München defender Willy Sagnol warns semi-final rivals Olympique Lyonnais that today's side "play better football than we did".
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Former FC Bayern München defender Willy Sagnol is backing his old club to prevail as Louis van Gaal's men gear up for the opening leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final with Olympique Lyonnais on Wednesday.
Sagnol was a crowd favourite for Bayern until injury brought an end to his nine-year spell in 2009, and he knows exactly what it takes to engineer success on the European stage after helping the Bundesliga giants clinch the UEFA Champions League in 2000/01. Their home meeting with Lyon represents the club's first appearance in the last four since that victorious campaign, but it is not Bayern that Sagnol is surprised to see vying to claim a place in the Madrid showpiece on 22 May.
"Bayern against Lyon in the semi-finals? That hardly seemed credible before, but more because of Lyon than Bayern," the 33-year-old erstwhile French international told UEFA.com, possibly remembering his roots as a former player with Lyon's local rivals, AS Saint-Etienne. "They do not play beautiful football, but you have to respect them for reaching the semis. Their biggest strength is their team spirit."
The 2006 FIFA World Cup runner-up nonetheless believes Bayern can match the Ligue 1 outfit in that department, and team unity is not the only similarity he has noted between the two clubs. "Both teams are stronger in attack," he explained. "Lisandro López and Michael Bastos are the key players for Lyon. On the other hand, Bayern have [Franck] Ribéry and [Arjen] Robben, who can decide a match on their own at any moment."
That said, Sagnol believes the most important figure in the tie could well be young Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. "For me, Lloris is one of the four best keepers in Europe at the moment, and while he was at OGC Nice he was already being scouted by Bayern," Sagnol added. "He has improved even more at Lyon and he's now deservedly No1 for France."
The 23-year-old custodian perhaps ought to expect a busy night in Munich, particularly as Sagnol sees a genuine parallel between Bayern's present campaign and their last victorious bid. "Similarly to us nine years ago, no one really expected Bayern to make it this far," he said. "Maybe Bayern need to be seen as outsiders. The difference comes down to the makeup of the two teams. We were stronger in defence, while the current team plays more attacking football. But, as with us in 2001, this team has lots of willpower and I think they play better football than we did."
They certainly demonstrated a knack for scoring important goals in the quarter-finals, coming from behind to beat Manchester United FC 2-1 at home, before registering twice after falling 3-0 down at Old Trafford. Overall they have hit 17 strikes in their ten outings in the competition – as have Lyon – yet Sagnol admitted he would be content with a low-key affair to kick off the tie. "I think a goalless draw would be perfect for Bayern in the first leg," he said. "The previous round showed that they are always capable of scoring away from home. If you asked me for a percentage, I would say it's 51 to 49 in favour of Bayern."