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Business as usual for new-look Lyon in search of eighth title

SoccerNews in Ligue 1 8 Aug 2008


There may be a new look to Lyon when the French first division campaign kicks off on Saturday, but it will be business as usual as the champions chase down an unprecedented eighth consecutive league title.

Manager Alain Perrin, who led Lyon to the league and cup double, long-time keeper Gregory Coupet and international starlet Hatem Ben Arfa all moved on in a spring clean that raised a few eyebrows, not to mention hackles.

In their place came former Lille coach Claude Puel, French reserve keeper Hugo Lloris and striker Frederic Piquionne as Lyon looked to mount a serious challenge, not only at home but abroad.

On signing, Puel spoke of the club's “lofty ambition” to compete well in Europe's richest tournament, the Champions League, a tournament in which they have never made the semi-finals.

But Lyon will not have it all their own way domestically, as evidenced by last weekend's French Champions Trophy defeat at the hands of league runners-up Bordeaux.

Coached by World Cup winner Laurent Blanc, Bordeaux beat the champions 5-4 on penalties, a potentially epoch-busting defeat seeing as Lyon have not been beaten in that cup since 2001.

As a sign of Blanc's ambitions, he has signed 21-year-old AC Milan midfielder Yoann Gourcuff on a year-long loan deal and Argentinean international defender Diego Placente.

Another team with a say in the destination of the league trophy will be last season's third-placed Marseille.

The Mediterranean side, who last won the league title in 1992, will surely miss future star Samir Nasri, who moved to English Premier League side Arsenal in the close season, but the capture of Ben Afra could offset that.

One player who will not be making his way to Marseille is former striker Didier Drogba, who is set to pledge his future to Chelsea.

Drogba had been the subject of an audacious Marseille fans' initiative to buy him back, with a donations website raising over 2.5 million euros — but falling some 38 million euros short of the star's going rate.

On the subject of ambitious projects, sleeping giants St Etienne could be about to wake from a slumber that has seen them go without top-flight silverware for over 25 years.

Coached by Laurent Roussey, the 10-time French champions placed a respectable fifth last season to earn a UEFA Cup spot.

As a sign of their intentions, the club — once home to UEFA boss Michel Platini — have managed to keep hold of hot shot Bafetimbi Gomis, who recently pledged his future until 2012.

Gomis's club form saw him called up to the French Euro 2008 squad by Raymond Domenech, becoming the first player since Zinedine Zidane to score a double on his debut.

St Etienne, who last weekend celebrated their 75th birthday, have also bought Japan international star Daisuke Matsui, who has been described as the new Nakata.

Zidane's one-time club and country team-mate Claude Makelele was one of a series of notable signings by Paris St Germain, joining former AS Roma star Ludovic Giuly and Stephane Sessegnon from Le Mans.

The experienced Makelele, formerly of Real Madrid and Chelsea and with 71 international caps, will steady the good ship PSG, which was battered by wave after wave of disappointment last season.

A messy relegation dog-fight, repeated calls for under-performing coach Paul Le Guen to resign and being thrown out of this season's League Cup were just some of the troubles endured recently by the Paris club.

But ambition is the often first step to success, and the capture of the trio — and the possible signing of Serbian attacker Mateja Kezman from Fenerbahce — will make the opposition take notice.

One thing is for sure, the coming French season will be full of incident and action and, in some cases, it certainly won't be the place for faint hearts.

Opening fixtures for the 2008/09 French football season

Saturday: Auxerre v Nantes, Bordeaux v Caen, Le Havre v Nice, Le Mans v Lorient, Monaco v Paris SG, Nancy v Lille, Rennes v Marseille, Sochaux v Grenoble, Valenciennes v Saint Etienne

Sunday: Lyon v Toulouse


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