As Paris Saint-Germain gear up for the quarter-finals, Champions Matchday looks back at Laurent Blanc's UEFA Champions League coaching debut with FC Girondins de Bordeaux.
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"I never even thought of him." That's how FC Girondins de Bordeaux president Jean-Louis Triaud reacted when a friend suggested Laurent Blanc as the club's new head coach.
Having been turned down for many coaching posts, Blanc had stopped applying by 2007. "Just when I thought I might never get a job, Bordeaux came along. I'm very grateful to them," he said later.
Blanc made four new signings after he was appointed eight years ago. Alou Diarra, Mathieu Chalmé, Souleymane Diawara and David Bellion arrived, while Rio Mavuba, Julien Faubert, Gérald Cid and Jean-Claude Darcheville departed.
The squad's 2007 summer holiday was cut short to prepare for the new season. Blanc's prestige as a French FIFA World Cup winner – and his determination to make football fun – got the players on his side.
"Although I was a defender, I liked to play the ball whenever I could," said Blanc, 49. "I want my team to play with that philosophy." For him, "football means having the ball, conjuring moves, harnessing our strengths, posing problems for the opposition, scoring goals and taking risks."
The blueprint for Blanc's teams was established at Bordeaux: lots of possession, a narrow midfield and space on the wings for full-backs to attack. The defence was stingy – 17 clean sheets in Ligue 1 in 2007/08 – with Diarra's industrious holding, in a similar role to Thiago Motta's at Paris Saint-Germain, allowing the rest of the side to push forward.
Having finished sixth in Ligue 1 in 2006/07, the Girondins were runners-up in Blanc's first campaign. Encouraged, he turned down the chance to succeed Carlos Queiroz as Sir Alex Ferguson's deputy. That can't have been easy. Blanc had loved his two years as a Manchester United FC player, saying: "I have notebooks dedicated to ideas and ways of managing I took from my years at United."
Committed to the Girondins, he made two defining acquisitions: Yoan Gouffran and, on loan from AC Milan, midfield creator Yoann Gourcuff. Despite being drawn against Chelsea FC, CFR 1907 Cluj and AS Roma, Blanc was optimistic about his UEFA Champions League debut as coach. "There will be three teams playing the last game of the group stage with the possibility of going through," he said. "And we have to be one of them."
His first 90 minutes were chastening. Facing Luiz Felipe Scolari's Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Bordeaux were tentative and lost 4-0.
On matchday two against Roma, the Girondins performed with their usual controlled aggression. Diarra dominated midfield and Gourcuff gave Bordeaux the lead with a curling shot. Yet the match turned after 36 minutes when centre-back Henrique was sent off. Blanc's men faded under pressure. Luciano Spalletti brought on Júlio Baptista to bolster his attack and he struck twice as Roma prevailed 3-1.
"There was a difference between Roma and us, not with the players or level of play, but in terms of experience," said Blanc. Experience had helped Roma win without playing well.
Bordeaux did precisely that against Cluj at Stade Chaban-Delmas. Frustrated by the Romanian champions' five-man midfield, Blanc's side needed a Cadú own goal to secure a home victory. In Romania, Bordeaux's slick passing set up a 2-1 triumph.
"It will be a very exciting match against Chelsea," Blanc said. "More pleasant for us than them." So it proved. Gourcuff was brilliant in midfield while Gouffran and Wendel shone out wide. When Nicolas Anelka gave visiting Chelsea the lead, Blanc swapped Gouffran with Argentinian No9 Fernando Cavenaghi, morphing his 4-2-3-1 into a 4-4-2. Bordeaux's efforts were rewarded when Diarra headed a late equaliser.
The Girondins travelled to Rome on matchday six knowing three points would take them through. They never got going. Blanc conceded they had been naive: "It's always the same with Italian teams. You think you have the upper hand but in the end the score is always the same." Clinical Roma won 2-0 to top the group.
Taking heart from their continental campaign, Bordeaux proceeded to claim their first Ligue 1 crown in ten years in 2008/09. The next term they reached the last eight of the UEFA Champions League, with Blanc citing a 1-1 group draw at Juventus as proof his team had grown: "We went to Turin with the desire to cause Juve problems, play to our strengths and, above all, not feel what French clubs often feel against these big famous clubs – a certain fragility, a certain complex. In that first game, my players lost their complexes."
The same evolution can be seen in Blanc's Paris. In the last eight for the third year in succession, the Rouge et Bleu overcame Chelsea in the round of 16, playing like a side without "complexes".