In hindsight, the peak came on September 13, 2005. Olympique Lyonnais would go on to win three more consecutive titles and reach the Champions League semi-finals almost five years later, but by then this was a club grasping onto the edge of the cliff. On that Tuesday evening at the Stade de Gerland, Lyon stood on top of the mountain.
Gerard Houllier had celebrated Lyon’s fourth consecutive Ligue 1 title four months earlier, finishing 12 points ahead of Lille and 24 points ahead of Stade Rennais in fourth position.
They had also reached the Champions League quarter-finals in each of the last two seasons, suffering disappointing exits to Porto and PSV Eindhoven.
Their first group stage match was against Real Madrid, again tipped as likely winners.
This was the Real Madrid rolled in glitter and plated in gold. Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo may have missed out through injury, but Raul, Roberto Carlos, Robinho, David Beckham, Ivan Helguera and Iker Casillas all started.
After half an hour, Lyon were three goals to the good. Real had been blown away by the attacking efficiency and defensive resilience of Houllier’s team.
John Carew had scored the first goal, before Juninho Pernambucano scored his 20th free-kick since joining the club and Sylvain Wiltord added a third.
There was even time for Juninho to spurn a penalty before half-time, but it only peeled away one layer of Madrid humiliation and Lyonnaise joy.
“The match was spectacular,” Houllier would beam in his post-match press conference. “It was a beautiful game and we scored at the right moments. I was afraid that we would be overawed by the occasion, but the players rose to the challenge.
“Even if we had lost, I would still continue to dream of the final. I’m really confident in my team. We are capable of holding our own against anyone in Europe.”
Lyon would go on to take 16 points from a possible 18 in that group, drawing 1-1 at the Bernabeu.
They would then gain revenge on PSV from the previous season by beating them 5-0 on aggregate in the last-16, and were five minutes from knocking out reigning champions AC Milan in the quarter-final.
An 89th minute Pippo Inzaghi goal put Carlo Ancelotti’s side ahead before Lyon were caught in the final minute of injury time when throwing men forward.
Their disappointment at three consecutive quarter-finals only emphasises the club’s ambition.
That Lyon team now almost seems mythical. We associate short bursts of glory with a time before modern football, an anachronism at a time when success breeds success and financial might only snowballs. Stade Reims, Huddersfield Town, Nottingham Forest and Pro Vercelli – all clubs that enjoyed a window of glory before entering a comparative winter.
Lyon did exactly the same in the modern era. They have won seven French league titles in their history, and all within a seven-year period of sunshine. This is a club who qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League nine seasons in a row having never done so before and never done so since. It is truly remarkable.
That brief run on Broadway only allows us to treat the actors with more fondness. Carew, the formidable striker, flanked by Florent Malouda and Wiltord.
A midfield containing maestro Juninho, Mahamadou Diarra and Tiago. Claudio Cacapa and Cris in defence with France No.1 Gregory Coupet in goal.
For that famous victory in 2005, Sidney Govou, Fred and Hatem Ben Arfa could only make the bench. Eric Abidal, Karim Benzema; the names go on.
Perhaps Lyon simply peaked at the wrong time, although that is as pointless as cursing the changing of the seasons or the tide rolling in. The nostalgic neutral doesn’t care about the eventual destination; Lyon supporters can worry about that. We’re only here for the glorious highs. They were a mercurial team for a mercurial club for whom everything clicked into place.
It is certainly too easy to say that the arrival of Qatari millions at Paris Saint-Germain caused Lyon’s downfall, for they were already rolling downhill when Nasser Al-Khelaifi was announced as PSG’s president in October 2011. Instead, this was a self-inflicted wound.
It started with the departure of Houllier in 2007, unhappy with president’s Jean-Michel Aulas demands that the club be more successful in Europe. With Houllier went Malouda, Abidal and Tiago, all to high-profile European clubs.
Alain Perrin took over as manager and won the double, but the cracks were already beginning to show.
An unexpected run to the Champions League semi-finals came in 2010 – Lyon actually came second in their group before stunning Real Madrid in the last-16 and squeezing past Bordeaux in the quarter-finals – but that was built on the magnificence of several key players including Hugo Lloris, Miralem Pjanic and Lisandro Lopez.
It was nothing more than a brief Indian summer, a few warm September days before the nights get shorter and the temperature drops.
The team that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Lyon have finished in the top two twice since their last Ligue 1 title in 2008 and, while Alexandre Lacazette continues to provide his own magnificent moments, a repeat of that memorable run from 2005 looks highly unlikely any time soon.
But that only increases the nostalgic warmth we feel from their time in the sun.
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