DAVID SHONFIELD: Lille in box seat but JMA’s Lyon take heart

EUROPE’S title winners are decided, more or less.

Milan, Dortmund and Porto are all celebrating and Barcelona are about to join them – amazingly not just as the masters of attacking football but also as the side with the best defensive record in the history of La Liga.

A thrilling three-way contest is still in prospect in both Holland and France, however.

Sunday’s match between Ajax and Twente is likely to prove decisive in the Eredivisie.

But, after the weekend’s results, the battle for the French title could well last until the final round of matches, the day after Manchester United and Barcelona meet at Wembley.

If the French league were a golf tournament Lille would be sitting pretty, four up with four to play. But going into their match at Saint-Etienne tonight, they have players suspended and their brilliant young playmaker Eden Hazard has a twisted ankle.

“They were telling us at the start of the season that the creators would be protected,” said their coach RudiGarcia yesterday.

“Maybe that’s for next season.”

Lille have led the table since before Christmas — but for one week — but have failed to put together a run of wins to take them clear of their pursuers. Saint-Etienne held them when they met in December and they have dropped points against other mid-table sides. Luckily for Lille their rivals have also been inconsistent.

Sunday night’s clash between Lyon and Marseille could have seen Lille’s advantage cut to a single point but the Marseillais blew their opportunity.

Last season the two heavyweights of French football fought out an amazing 5-5 draw, the match tilting this way and that in the final 20 minutes.

As Sunday’s match entered the final quarter suddenly it felt like a repeat, as Lyon first made the game safe, then let a two-goal lead slip and finally secured all three points thanks to a goal from their captain Cris with six minutes left.

Agony for Didier Deschamps and his players, especially as they had a legitimate first-half goal denied them thanks to a handball that only referee Stephane Lannoy was able to see.

For Lyon it was a colossal relief that could yet turn a season of frustration and near-crisis into a triumph.

Lyon’s ambitious president Jean-Michel Aulas, generally known as JMA, has proved remarkably patient with coach Claude Puel despite the team’s failure to win things.

But rumours surfaced six months ago that trouble was brewing.

The president was unhappy with the management structure it was reported, even though Puel was an admirable coach. Normally that’s a signal for one of JMA’s severe media announcements. Instead it was left to his right-hand man Bernard Lacombe, who in most clubs would be director of football but at Lyon has the unique status of counsellor to the president.

“Have we decided on Puel’s future? Not for the moment. At clubs like Lyon and Marseille it’s evident that if you win nothing after three years then people can ask themselves some question.”

The familiar solemn tread of the dead man walking seemed to resound in the corridors of the Stade Gerland, growing all the louder when the local radio reported that JMA had been spotted at lunch at Lyon’s Number One restaurant; chef Paul Bocuse’s guest Marcello Lippi, serial trophy-winner with Juventus and Italy, currently at a loose end.

When Lyon lost 2-0 at Toulouse on May Day the sense of crisis became acute. An angry Aulas was reported to have confronted the team and staff after the match and then to have collapsed.

Happily it was a faint rather than a heart attack or a stroke, but the club and its future, above all the newstadium, are so closely identified with the president that supporters feared the worst.

Lacombe may be the wise and distinguished counsellor but Aulas is the man who makes things happen. He is also the man responsible for the current contract negotiations to ensure that key players such as goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and striker Lisandro Lopez stay at the club.

“Sack Puel? Preposterous,” declared Aulas. It seems more credible after Sunday’s match. The nature of the 3-2 win was perhaps not what the doctor would have ordered but it puts Lyon in a position to qualify for the Champions League and perhaps take advantage of any slip-ups by the top two. The next three weeks could be stressful for all concerned.


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