Masculins / OL - Le Mans D-1

A final to play for and lots more at stake

Published on 16 January 2007 at 6:31 PM
“We want to make it to the Stade de France to win trophies for our fans,” says Florent Malouda, echoed by his coach Gérard Houllier: “We are knocking on the door of the final. And we’ll fight for it tooth and nail.”
If OL, used to top-flight European action, don’t need this title in order to stay in Europe, they have nonetheless enshrined it as a major objective this season, not wanting to miss the chance of brining home a new trophy, the first in a direct elimination tournament since their victory in 2001. “We want to make it to the Stade de France to win trophies for our fans,” says Florent Malouda, echoed by his coach Gérard Houllier: “We are knocking on the door of the final. And we’ll fight for it tooth and nail.
Having eliminating Nancy in the quarter-final, OL would do well to imitate them, winners at the Stade de France in 2006 after having played all their matches at home. “We are lucky enough to have a home semi-final. It’s an opportunity not to be missed,” says Florent Malouda.

About more than just the trophy, it’s about the experience and the confidence in direct knockout competitions that Houllier’s players will try to amass against MUC 72. At the heart of a January schedule that acts as a rehearsal for their upcoming European battles, this semi-final will be the second stage in a schedule that gives OL three cup games in a fortnight (and 4 in 25 days if they qualify for the last 16 of the Coupe de France against Laon on Saturday January 20). And Le Mans has such experience in knockout games, having played in a Coupe de la Ligue semi-final in 2006, going down 2-0 in Nancy.

Another source of inspiration for OL: to get back to winning ways after their loss in Toulouse and to “get the engine ticking over again”. Echoing Florent Malouda, Gérard Houllier sees the chance for a win to “catapult us back into form”. Faced with an OL squad undefeated at home this season, Le Mans can’t count on any favours from the men of Gerland. “I think this defeat will do us good,” says Houllier. Cut to the quick by their second defeat of the season, Cris and his team-mates need to rediscover their winning form to get through a winter that often kills off the ambitions of clubs. With a well-to-do 8-point lead at the winter break in season 2003-2004, AS Monaco lost its lead to OL on the spring equinox, then went on to finish the season with no trophies whatsoever.

To thrill the Stade de France for the second time in their history (the final of the Coupe de la Ligue 1996 was held at the Parc des Princes), OL can take comfort from their head-to-head record, which is largely in the favour of OL. Frédéric Hantz’s players have suffered 5 losses in as many games against OL, with a record of 15 goals conceded and only 2 scored. Their last 2 visits to Gerland were defeats, 2-1 in 2003-2004, and 8-1 in season 2005-2006.

On the other hand, OL should be wary of the unpredictability and magic of a knockout cup tie. A glorious uncertainty that has allowed Le Mans to sweep aside Lens (3-1), Sochaux 2-1, in Bonal), teams respectively 2nd and 4th in L1. Another source of wariness for Rémy Vercoutre: the young Mamadou Samassa, once unreliable, who will be out to prove himself as he replaces the Brazilian Grafite, who is out with a torn Achilles tendon.
As for OL’s injuries, Karim Benzema, Grégory Coupet and Sylvain Wiltord will miss this match, but their absences will give Loïc Rémy and Rémy Vercoutre an important opportunity to experience the unique atmosphere of the cup.

The season is definitely getting to the business end. “We sowed the seeds at the beginning of the season, and now it’s time to harvest them,” says Florent Malouda. An ambition corroborated by his manager. “I love the Coupe de la Ligue. I won it twice in England. It was the first of three trophies (League Cup, FA Cup and the 2001 UEFA Cup).”

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