A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
Bordeaux and Lyon greeted being drawn together in the Champions League quarter-finals with the kind of phoney bonhomie that was reminiscent of the line from The Godfather Part II when Michael Corleone takes out a cigarette and recalls his father advising him to keep his friends close and his enemies closer.
“We were chatting with Jean-Michel Aulas before the draw and agreed we did not want to face each other,” Bordeaux president Jean-Louis Triaud admitted to Eurosport. Thankfully, the affable Triaud chose not to continue The Godfather parallel and have his counterpart at Lyon whacked.
And while things didn’t exactly go to the mattresses, the whole affair did inevitably turn nasty. There was no Sicilian Message for Lyon manager Claude Puel and his players, only a phone call from Bordeaux’s offices to those of LFP president Frederic Thiriez.
Bordeaux made Thiriez an offer he could have refused, asking him to move Lyon’s match against Grenoble on Friday to the following day, so Blanc’s side, who were playing the League Cup final on Saturday, would have the same amount of time to prepare for the quarter-final first leg as their opponents. Capisce?
Anyway, that’s enough with these allusions to The Godfather. Admittedly, The French Connection should have followed Triaud’s example about two pars ago, but Puel was fuming as the much-maligned Thiriez accepted Bordeaux’s proposal. “Don’t talk to me about fairness when you know how things go, when Blanc directly calls the League president to try and influence him,” he raged.
And yet if Puel wasn’t so busy seeing red and powering a steam engine with the sheer amount of hot air pouring out of his ears, he would have no doubt recognised what a wonderful moment this is for French football.
After all, France would have a representative in the semi-finals of the Champions League no matter what for the first time since 2004. Only debt-loving England had as many teams as France left in the competition.
For Lyon, who were knocked out at the quarter-final stage three years running between 2004 and 2006, it was a real chance to break new ground. “We are not afraid of anything,” smirked Anthony Réveillère, Lyon’s 30-year-old right-back. “I’ve played in three, everything is decided by the smallest details. Being the outsider or the favourite doesn’t mean a thing.”
For Bordeaux, it was their first appearance in the quarter-finals since 1988 when the eventual winners, Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven, edged them out on away goals. “Just getting this far is a real achievement,” smiled Marouane Chamakh, the Moroccan striker who has a Chelsea haircut, but seems ever closer to a move to Arsenal.
But just as in Stalingrad, the sniping continued.
Aulas simply couldn’t let Grenoble-gate go. Speaking to Le Parisien on Monday, he said: “I thought that Bordeaux were sure of themselves, but when I saw them nit-picking for us to play on Saturday, I realised that Blanc was less confident than I imagined.”
Fresh from branding France’s performance against Spain earlier this month “a humiliation”, Lyon midfielder Jérémy Toulalan wagged his silver tongue once more, expressing his disappointment at not drawing ‘a foreign team who are a little bigger’.
Hugo Lloris, the Lyon and France No.1, even had the temerity to say: “We’re not playing against Bordeaux, we’re playing against ourselves.”
Never one to shy away from a slanging match, Chamakh hit back by revealing that “Bordeaux would have preferred to avoid playing Lyon because it doesn’t feel like a big European night.” The expression Touché probably then fell from his lips. So it’s little wonder that Blanc predicted there would be “some spice” at his pre-match press conference. Mind games or not, the pressure was now more on his shoulders than Puel’s.
Bordeaux’s 3-1 defeat to Marseille in the League Cup final on Saturday couldn’t be ignored as they were facing another French team only this time in Europe.
And while Bordeaux had recorded more points than any other team in the group stages, also keeping clean sheets in each of their last three European away matches, Lyon had put in the more memorable performances, winning at Anfield and drawing at the Santiago Bernabéu.
December’s meeting between the two sides saw Bordeaux win 1-0 at the Gerland, but only in the 86th minute.
Alou Diarra, their influential captain, was magnificent on that evening, but he was suspended for Tuesday’s clash, while Toulalan who missed the game in December was back for Lyon.
In fact, if the season had started after Christmas, Lyon would be top of Ligue 1 instead of being just two points behind Bordeaux. So like an angry snowball covered in patches of yellow, careening down the side of a mountain, picking up momentum and leaving bodies in its wake, Lyon smashed into Bordeaux with some force.
Lisandro López, the bearded Argentinian gunslinger, took advantage of a mistake made by Bordeaux defender Michaël Ciani after just 10 minutes to give Lyon the lead.
Chamakh equalised almost immediately, scoring his 11th header of the season, but Lyon showed a proclivity for guerrilla warfare, lulling their opponents into a false sense of security, before launching an ambush.
Michel Bastos re-established Lyon’s advantage after half an hour, profiting on another uncharacteristic lapse in the Bordeaux defence to curl a lovely shot beyond former Crystal Palace ‘keeper Cédric Carrasso.
Only then did Bordeaux start to really dominate the play, carving out two great chances after the interval – one for Chamakh who forced Hugo Lloris into a great save and another for Wendel who hit the bar.
The match’s status as an instant classic was confirmed when Bordeaux full-back Mathieu Chalmé was judged to have handled in the box with 13 minutes remaining; López made no mistake, slotting his penalty away to give Lyon a 3-1 lead that left Bordeaux reeling.
Jean Makoun and Sidney Govou could have piled yet more misery on les Girondins, but it was job done for Lyon.
The victory was bittersweet for López whose match-winning performance was tainted by an undeserved yellow card that rules him out of the second leg. And despite stats showing that 77 per cent of teams with a 3-1 lead in the first leg go through at this stage of the competition, Puel was left thinking about what might have been.
“There is a little regret that we did not score a fourth,” he bristled. “The second leg is open. I know how good they are. They are a team who put lots of pressure on any side.”
Meanwhile, Blanc tried putting a shine on things, praising his players. “I might surprise you by saying I’m very happy with how my team performed tonight. It has been a long time since I’d seen them play that way.”
However, there is a definite sense that Blanc was actually the unhappy clown, smiling on the outside while frowning on the inside. His team have now suffered back-to-back 3-1 defeats to their title rivals, losing five of their last 12 matches.
Needless to say, the final straight is not the place to have a wobble.
More from The French Connection
What an advert for French football! I thought the game between Lyon and Bordeaux was much more exciting than United's trip to Bayern Munich. It was a classic cup tie, nothing like when the English teams usually meet in the quarter or semi-finals, when they clam up, get cagey and all that.
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