Juninho discusses his “excellent” start to the season. After a pre-season hampered by a muscle strain, the Brazilian “feels much better”. He also discusses the “right balance” the side has found as well as Saturday’s clash with Rennes.
All too often, and unfairly, often seen as nothing more than a dead-ball specialist, over the last 6 years Juni’s influence on the side has been decisive. He has been involved in 137, or 43%, of OL’s 317 L1 goals during that time!
Thus when the Brazilian has a dip in form, the whole side stumbles. Strong physical training, along with a return to a 4-3-3 formation, has got the Brazilian maestro and OL back afloat: “I feel better. My season is going well. The key to our success? After our win in Bordeaux, we strung the victories together (7 in a row). The team has managed to find the right balance, something we weren’t able to do before then. We had put too much emphasis on our technical qualities and neglected our defensive duties. By trying to do too much in attack, we forgot to cover each other and lend a hand at the back.”
After the 4-2 win over Stuttgart, Sidney Govou declared his side “too attacking to shut up shop”. “It’s a question of age,” remarks Juninho. “We have some young players who are very important to the team, such as Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema. They can do anything with the ball… Their bursting onto the scene is the fruit of work begun by Paul (Le Guen), continued by Gérard (Houllier) and prolonged by our current coach (Alain Perrin). They are two solid players. If they continue like this, Karim (Benzema) has everything to become the best player in the league and Hatem can be the best in his position.”
During the summer, the Brazilian had once again been a few steps ahead of everyone in openly putting his faith in Ben Arfa. “I’m really happy for him,” he smiles. “The talent was always there but something in him has changed: he’s gone from a boy to a man. He’s much more responsible, and when you’re serious and work hard, you’re almost sure of succeeding.”
And of his Auriverde team-mate Fred? “At the moment. He’s not in top form. I’ve been there. He needs game time to get his rhythm back. He needs to get stronger. I hope he can do it quickly.”
ON Saturday, against Rennes, OL needs to bounce back and return to winning ways, two weeks after a “normal” defeat to Marseille. While he recognizes that the loss “made sense”, Juninho does let one small regret slip out: “We could have won it. Against a side in a form slump, we should have been able to handle it better.” Is it enough to let doubt creep in? “No!… (He continues) You have to have some doubt because that’s what makes you improve and forces you to stay concentrated.”
A measure of vigilance that won’t be out of order on Saturday at the Stade de la Route de Lorient, after a two-week international break. “No-one knows how the team will react. We often have trouble against Rennes, as they’re a team that plays the ball well, a team that could win the league. They have talented players, especially in midfield. Wiltord brings a lot to the mental side of things because he only thinks of victory. They also have the best defender in the league in John Mensah. I don’t understand why they don’t hope to go all the way. With the team they have…”
In these conditions, he recognizes that “a victory in Rennes will be a great result” but he warns that: “this year, the league will be really tough and might be won as late as the end of May. Just like Nancy, certain sides haven’t made many changes. Bordeaux is also playing some really good matches”. But still, there’s no danger that the side will break the house rules: “One thing is for sure: we’re going to fight for the title.”