When Juninho beat Schäfer, in stoppage time, the ovation from the fans at Gerland was on par with the tension that had built up in the end of the match, with OL having everything to lose: the safety of a UEFA Cup spot and any hopes of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.
The French champions now have a new target: Glasgow Rangers whom they will visit in one month’s time and who are now only one point in front of OL, but with a considerable goal difference. At the end of a rather crazy match, the Olympiens earned the right to dream. To dream of a continued campaign and a comeback that seemed almost unthinkable just one month ago… but we don’t want to put the mocker on them and it’s still a long way off, so suffice to say that Alain Perrin’s men dug deep and showed true character in what was a true cup match to finally secure the goal they had set themselves. The coming fixtures hardly incite excessive optimism: Barcelona in Lyon and then Glasgow Rangers in Scotland – OL has already played the least daunting of their matches! The Olympiens will need to improve their defensive rigour! But let’s not paint too dark a picture. Tonight, only victory was important. That was the sense of the match, what was at stake, crossed with a desire to perform well in front of the home fans, that pushed the Olympiens incessantly forward in attack when a more prudent approach would have had them closing up shop.
As often happens when it’s all said and done, you wonder how things got the way they did. Everything got off to such a good start and seemed completely under control! Set up by a fine move from Govou and Källström, Hatem Ben Arfa led the charge, scoring his first Champions League goal (6’). On the 15-minute mark, Kim Källström doubled OL’s advantage and it seemed the match was close to being sewn up, that OL would stroll to its second win over the German club and onto qualification for the last 16; especially because Thierry Henry had just opened the scoring for Barcelona against Rangers and was quickly emulated by Messi.
But the Germans had come with the firm intention of bringing Rémy Vercoutre undone by shooting from distance. Hitzlsperger sent the ball into the southern stand (5’) and Magnin’s cross/shot was fisted away for a corner by the OL keeper (12’). One minute after Källström’s goal, Vercoutre stopped Hitzlsperger’s next effort from distance but it fell to the feet of Gomez, who slotted home (16’). The goal got Stuttgart going again after a sluggish start and further chilled, as if it were necessary, Gerland.
The match caught fire, the ball travelling from end to end. Rémy Vercoutre now his one-on-one with Cacau (21’) and punched clear shots that were still being fired from outside the area, from Fernando Meira (24’) and Khedira (28’). At the other end, Shäfer was similarly called into action by long shots from (18’ and 19’) and Källström (30’). The German keeper could do nothing however about Hatem Ben Arfa who, after turning 2 defenders with a check behind his body, hit the back of the net with a fine right-footed drive (38’). OL seemed to be definitively back on the right track. From a position similar to where he scored against Monaco, Réveillère fired over (39’).
The Olympiens could have spent the second half keeping possession and protecting their 2-goal advantage but they conceded again after a lapse in concentration. Left unmarked on the left, Magnin had all the time in the world to deliver a pinpoint cross to Gomez, who once again beat Vercoutre, from point blank range (56’). It even seemed that OL’s luck had run out when Gomez, whose award for the best player in the Bundesliga last year now makes a lot of sense, was awarded a penalty for a non-existent foul by Fabio Santos… outside the area! But sometimes there is justice in football: Rémy Vercoutre anticipated well and stopped Hitzlsperger’s shot from the spot (60’).
But the German continued to rain in shots from distance but found only the northern stand (65’) and Vercoutre’s gloves (69’). On 2 occasions, the OL keeper saved well from Marica (83’) and Khedira (85’).
You might have thought OL would be threatened by the continued assaults from their visitors. Not at all. In stead of calming things down, the Olympiens went looking for the knockout blow. Benzema underhit his shot at Schäfer (72’), Keita lost his one-on-one with the same man (84’) and Juninho persisted, 3 times unlucky (75’, 80’ and 87’) before landing the clincher after François Clerc put it on a plate for him (90’).
In 3 weeks, will return to Gerland to face Barça. Even though they know they are no longer the same side the Catalans beat 3-0 at the Nou Camp in the opening round, they’re not forgetting that it’s a long and winding road and the toughest is yet to come… but the most beautiful as well.