Lyon sharpen claws to make Euro breakthrough
Their all-French quarter-final against Girondins Bordeaux was not so much about domestic supremacy, more about Lyon's desperation to finally make an impact in Europe after three times failing to survive the last eight.
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"It had to happen some time," Lyon coach Claude Puel, not a man to show his emotions, told reporters after his side advanced to the semi-finals of European club soccer's premier event for the first time on Wednesday.
"This is a reward for everybody at the club and for the players, who have been through difficult moments but showed character," Puel added after a 1-0 defeat at Bordeaux handed Lyon a 3-2 win on aggregate.
Lyon, who won seven Ligue 1 titles in a row before surrendering their crown to Bordeaux last year, had never quite made it in Europe, falling in the quarter-finals to Porto in 2004, PSV Eindhoven in 2005 and AC Milan in 2006.
Chairman Jean-Michel Aulas, who used his entrepreneurial skills to turn the club from a sleepy provincial outfit into the measure of all things in France, knew only a great run in Europe could earn Lyon a genuine nationwide following.
They have achieved that at last, stunning Real Madrid to make the last eight before passing the Bordeaux test with a show of great determination and a not a few great saves from France keeper Hugo Lloris.
Even their own fans had their doubts after Lyon saw arguably their best two players, Brazilian midfielder Juninho and France striker Karim Benzema, leave them at the end of last season.
The Lyon supporters got really worried when their team ended 2009 in sixth place in Ligue 1, 13 points behind Bordeaux.
They bounced back in 2010, however, and are now in second position in the league, two points behind Olympique Marseille with seven games remaining in what promises to be a thrilling finale to the title race.
"I have been at Lyon for a long time and been through a lot of things but this is just unforgettable," Brazilian Cris, the Lyon captain, told reporters after marshalling his defence with calm authority on Wednesday.
Lyon will face Bayern Munich in the semi-finals knowing they can rely not only on Cris but also on Lloris, who helped them through on Wednesday with a great save on a header by Brazilian midfielder Wendel in the dying moments.
"I would like to thank Hugo, who was just fantastic and saved us again," Cris said. "For me he's simply the best goalkeeper in the world."
The first French club to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League since Monaco's run to the final in 2004, Lyon see no reason why their adventure should stop in the next round.
"This year we could achieve something really special," Cris predicted. "We have a group full of experience and the most important thing is we have character."
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