Lyon's strikers Lisandro Lopez and Yoann Gourcuff are hitting form at just the right time to welcome Portugal's Benfica in Wednesday's Champions League match.
AP - Lisandro Lopez and Yoann Gourcuff are hitting form at just the right time for beleaguered Lyon coach Claude Puel, whose job willbecome a little safer if they beat Benfica in Wednesday's Champions League match.
After a tough start to the season for both players, Lopez scored twice in the 3-1 win against Lille on Sunday, and Gourcuff hit his third goal in three matches after netting in consecutive games for France in European Championship qualifying.
Lyon is traditionally strong in the group stages and already has six points. Beating Benfica, which has three points, at Stade Gerland will all but book Puel's team a place in the knockout round.
In Group B's other match, Schalke has three points and hosts last-place Hapoel Tel Aviv.
Puel has been under pressure to save his job after a difficult start tothe French league left the seven-time champion just above the relegation zone, and Puel on the receiving end of furious vitriol from Lyon fans."Criticizing the coach doesn't take away the responsibility of the players,'' Gourcuff said. "The coach is doing everything he can to build a competitive team, but it's the players who are out on the pitch.''
Before Sunday's win against Lille, banners were even draped off highway bridges and displayed in the city center calling for Puel's resignation - or for long-serving president Jean-Michel Aulas to sack him.
Gourcuff, signed by Puel from Bordeaux in a deal that could eventually rise to €26 million ($34 million), thinks the hate campaign was going way too far. "I don't know what happened in previous seasons for things to come to this,'' Gourcuff said. "That works against the team as well.''
After being greatly affected by France's World Cup fiasco, Gourcuff was a shadow of himself until bursting back to life with goals against Romania and Luxembourg in Euro 2012 qualifiers.
He showed his instinct for goals is returning with another crisp finish against Lille, and Gourcuff's re-emergence could just save Puel's job, with Lyon languishing in 14th place in the French league.
Aulas will wait until the end of the month to decide whether Puel stays. "It doesn't bother me,'' Puel said. ``Whatever the president says, I have to maintain a balance in the squad and keep a critical eye on things.''
Puel is seen as too disciplinarian by some players, including Brazilian defender Cris and Argentina forward Lopez - who was unhappy that Puel criticized him for being overweight in preseason training.
Relations have since thawed between Puel and Lopez, who has scored three times in the last two games. Puel will be without midfielder Jeremy Toulalan, who has been ruled out for two weeks after injuring his right foot.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has been getting consistent results with five wins in the last six games - the only loss in that spell was against Schalke in the Champions League.
Forwards Javier Saviola and Alan Kardec both scored in Saturday's 5-1 cup win over Arouca. Brazilian striker Kardec's two goals ended a long barren spell dating to March, when he scored against Marseille in the Europa League.
Like Puel, Felix Magath's Schalke has also been struggling on the domestic front. Schalke is one place above the relegation zone, with only five points from eight games after drawing 2-2 at home last weekend with bottom club Stuttgart.
Magath should be able to call on Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who is fit again after a concussion, and midfielder Jermaine Jones and winger Jefferson Farfan are back form suspensions.
Rakitic takes heart from Schalke's 2-0 win against Benfica three weeks ago. "We would like to pick up the next win in the group phase and, as far as possible, build on the performance from the match against Benfica,'' he said.
"In my opinion, we played our best game of the season so far against the Portuguese.'' Magath needs to sort out his defense because things are looking good for Netherlands striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who has scored in eight consecutive games for club and country. Strike partner Raul Gonzalez, however, has only one goal in 11 games since joining from Real Madrid and badly needs a goal against Hapoel.
After losing to Benfica and Lyon, Hapoel has enjoyed a return to form with league wins against Maccabi Netanya and Maccabi Tel Aviv. "To play well won't be enough. The time has come to take a point, or three,'' Hapoel striker Etay Shechter said. ``Schalke is a top team with excellent support and a big budget. In my opinion, a good result will be a draw, or more.''
But anything less than a win for Eli Gutman's team will all but end slim hopes of qualifying.
Date created : 2010-10-20