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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

LYON, February 19 (Champions League) - Lyon coach Alain Perrin believes the open style of football practised by English clubs gives his side a great c

LYON, February 19 (Champions League) - Lyon coach Alain Perrin believes the open style of football practised by English clubs gives his side a great chance of causing an upset against Manchester United in the Champions League last 16.

Perrin knows about the Premier League thanks to his short stint as manager of Portsmouth between April and November 2005.

His eight months at Fratton Park may have been seen by many as a failure - his overall record reads just four wins from 21 games in charge of Pompey - but they gave him an insight into life in the blood-and-thunder English top flight.

And ahead of Wednesday's last-16 first leg at the Stade Gerland, Perrin is confident his team will be afforded opportunities to trouble United, who are currently in second place in the Premier League.

'We can rightly compare this to a tennis match between the second-ranked player in the world and the 15th-ranked player,' he said.

'In 10 matches, we would lose six or seven of them. But we would win the others.

'And English football always gives an opponent the hope of succeeding. The game is less padlocked than in Italy, for example, and you get the feeling you can achieve something against them.

'But you always return to the same old axiom: there are exceptional players that make the difference. Cristiano Ronaldo is on fire at the moment, and (Wayne) Rooney is really strong.'

After being sacked by Portsmouth, Perrin had six months out of football before taking up the coaching post at Ligue 1 side Sochaux.

His managerial integrity returned in the year he spent at the small Montbeliard club, who he guided into Europe after winning the Coupe de France.

He was appointed coach of Lyon, the reigning six-time French champions, last summer and Les Gones have reached the knockout stages of Champions League and currently sit atop the Ligue 1 standings.

But a 1-0 loss to Le Mans on Saturday meant they are just one point above second-placed Bordeaux, and Perrin is rumoured to have had frank talks with club president Jean-Michel Aulas after the lacklustre defeat.

Perrin's credentials have also been questioned following Les Gones' sluggish start to 2008 but he does not see himself suddenly having come under pressure.

'There isn't any concern - I know the group has the necessary resources and the means to react,' he said.

'I haven't just suddenly discovered this pressure - it is with me each match. I know about the fragility linked with football.

'And there is always this pressure at Lyon. I am hardened to it and I am strong enough mentally not to be destabilised by all this.

'Pressure comes from within. The only pressure comes from my desire to succeed.'

There is no doubt all is not right in the Lyon squad, with even Perrin admitting 'the team is drifting at the moment'.

Injuries to players like centre-back Cris, goalkeeper Gregory Coupet and striker Fred has meant Perrin has often been without key performers in the spine of his team this season.

It is the closest title race in Ligue 1 for a number of years, while Lyon have the psychological barrier to climb of knowing they have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Perrin is confident his underdogs will give it a good shot against United over the two legs.

'We know we are not favourites,' he said.

'But that is going to allow us to play with a certain calmness, in the hope of causing an upset.'

Perrin will be boosted by the return to the squad of Cris, the Brazilian ball-playing defender who has been out of action since August with a knee injury.

'It is good news for everyone,' added Perrin, who is unlikely to play the club captain from the start. Read more...

Into the Lyon's den

United, beware! Olympique Lyonnais have their own Cristiano Ronaldo. His name? Hatem Ben Arfa. And though still only 20, he’s far from a newcomer – his first game in Ligue 1 was in August 2004, a 1-0 victory at Nice.

Back then, he was seen as a talented amateur, and freely admits playing fast and loose with some of the strictures imposed on a professional athlete. Off the pitch, that is. On it, his incredible ease with the ball was not always a help either.

A talented player with immense potential, he was by turns breathtaking and frustrating. Many doubted his ability to succeed at the highest level, but after a series of false starts – he scored just once in 2006/07 – he is now serving up healthy slices of humble pie to his critics.

Against Toulouse, in mid-January, Ben Arfa was flying. “His first half was out of this world,” says Pierre Michaud, a journalist with French TV station, Euronews. And Michaud knows what he’s talking about, having seen almost every match at Lyon’s Stade Gerland in the last five years.

“He’s so unpredictable,” he says, an adjective that crops up time and again in analysis of Ben Arfa’s game. “He really makes it happen because he’s such a powerful, offensive force.”

Michaud likens Ben Arfa to former Lyon academy starlet, Steed Malbranque, but it’s arguable that he is now closer to the Premier League’s premier wide player: Ronaldo. The lofty parallels don’t stop there. Alongside Marseille midfielder Samir Nasri, Ben Arfa has been dubbed the ‘new Zidane’ in France.

To be fair, Ben Arfa’s promising season has, in part, been made possible thanks to the emerging talent of his attacking colleague, Karim Benzema. Also 20, Benzema seems to be the final piece of the jigsaw neatly assembled by coach Alain Perrin.

Benzema, too, is a phenomenon. The youngster is a hybrid of Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs with the nous of Teddy Sheringham; the resultant package offers power, precision, speed and accuracy. Benzema has 16 goals in the French top flight and a further three in Europe.

Already a French international, he has made such an impact since winning his first cap against Austria last March that his Euro 2008 spot seems almost guaranteed.

Lyon have arguably never had it so good up front. But if this fixture offers a sterner test of United’s resolve than some might expect, the French are far from invincible. While the attack is flourishing, all is not well at the back.

Full-backs Fabio Grosso and Anthony Réveillère have been described as the weak links in an otherwise strong team. “World champion he might be, but he is no [Eric] Abidal,” said a Lyon fan of Grosso, while a scribe for L’Equipe mused: “Grosso is more of an attacker than a defender.”

Lyon have leaked 24 goals in Ligue 1, very nearly a goal a game, and conceded eight goals in their six Champions League Group E games. But they do have Grégory Coupet back in goal after five months out with a cruciate knee ligament injury. He seems stronger than ever. His stand-in Rémy Vercoutre is an able deputy, but not up to coping with the highest levels of European football.

Last but not least, influential centre-half Cris is on the road to recovery, and itching to make the date with United. The Brazilian was injured at the start of last season and returned home for an operation on his right knee. Having recuperated at his alma mater Corinthians, he has only recently returned to training, but the injury now seems behind him.

Cris is all-too-aware of the problems Lyon suffered in his absence. “I was far away, but followed what my team-mates were doing,” he said. “The start of the campaign was difficult because we changed coaches [Gerard Houllier was replaced by Perrin] and some major players left: Abidal, Florent Malouda, Tiago. We also had many injuries with Fred, Coupet and myself. And others did not fit into our style of play, such as Kader Keita [bought from Lille].”

The burning question is, can Lyon overcome United? Cris certainly thinks so. “People thought we couldn’t go through against Rangers and we did. No team is easy at this stage, especially Manchester United. When one thinks of United, one thinks of the whole of the history of the game, the traditions. Their strength? Cristiano Ronaldo. But they also have Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, and Louis Saha. These are the kind of games that offer a great stage for us.”

Cris doesn’t even feel a draw on their own patch would spell disaster. “The Champions League is a complicated tournament. If we get a 0-0 draw, it will be an excellent result. A scoring draw or a win [at Old Trafford] would see us qualify. Once you reach this stage of the competition it’s like a new tournament. The team should know how to handle the various situations occurring, otherwise, you’re out!”

Without tempting fate, this clash has the potential to be a truly memorable affair. “United are favourites, no doubt about it,” concedes Cris. “But Lyon have a great chance to go through." Read more...

Reds jet off to France

Sir Alex Ferguson has taken a strong squad to France for United's Champions League tie against Ligue 1 champions Lyon.

The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Owen Hargreaves all returned after sitting out Saturday's thumping FA Cup win over Arsenal, forming part of a 20-man squad that departed Manchester airport this morning.

Sir Alex and one of his players will face the international media at a press conference shortly after touching down in France, before heading over to the Stade de Gerland for a training session ahead of Wednesday's crucial first leg.

All the latest news from United's trip will appear first on

United: Van der Sar, Kuszczak; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, O'Shea, Simpson, Pique; Hargreaves, Carrick, Scholes, Anderson, Nani, Eagles; Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Giggs, Saha Read more...

Milan defeat inspires Sir Alex

United face a severe test in Lyon on Wednesday night, but Sir Alex Ferguson is confident his side will be inspired by the disappointment of last year's semi final exit.

A 3-2 win at Old Trafford gave United a slight advantage. Two weeks later in Milan, however, an injury-hit Reds team, chasing three trophies at the time, couldn't cope with a Rosonerri side focused solely on Champions League success.

First up in the knockout stages this term are Lyon, who are themselves looking to prove that they can convert domestic domination onto the European stage. With six straight Ligue 1 titles, this season's league leaders are a formidable force. But Sir Alex is confident.

"We got the hardest draw in terms of the teams we could have faced, but I think we can navigate it successfully," he told Inside United. "Lyon have won their league for the last six years and they’re top again this year, so I expect it to be a tough game."

The Reds boss admits that last year's defeat to Milan was difficult to take. "We want to do well this year in the Champions League," he added. "Losing to Milan last year really hurt us. We just didn’t have the legs. We had a bad injury spell in March, which killed us.

"We'd lost Saha from December, then we lost Mikael Silvestre, Ji-Sung Park, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic. Three of those players didn’t play again that season.

"Vidic came back against Milan. It was a gamble, one worth taking. Ronaldo was also carrying an ankle injury for that game. We were well short of being full-strength, whereas Milan had rested players and were primed for that game. We were unlucky. This year, if we stay fit we’ll have an better chance." Read more...

Giggs: We'll be Kings of Lyon

Ryan Giggs believes Manchester United will be driven on by last year’s Champions League semi-final heartache. The Wales wing wizard, 34, will make his 100th appearance in the competition if he features against Lyon in the Stade Gerland. He admits he still thinks back to the devastating 3-0 defeat by AC Milan last May. But with a much stronger squad to choose from this year, he is sure United can banish that memory once and for all. "I think the players who experienced that disappointment in Milan will be helped by it. Milan weren’t really going for anything else and were able to rest players. This year we’ll hopefully be wiser."
Martin Blackburn, The Sun

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