LYON, FRANCE – What a difference three months make. When Vladimir Dyadyun's flicked effort crept into the corner of Hugo Lloris's net, there was near silence around the Gerland as the gravity of Rubin Kazan's early blow sunk in; save for the faraway cheer from the bench and the mere handful of Rubin supporters in the far corner of the stadium. Yet what happened next was extraordinary. There were no whistles or boos from the stand, but a swell of chanting. "Lyonnais, Lyonnais, Lyonnais!" Lyon's fans were - and are - firmly behind their team.
Their players' response was emphatic. An early away goal for Rubin in the third qualifying round at Dynamo Kiev virtually killed the tie there and then. Something in the air told you that the same wouldn't happen to Lyon, and Remi Garde's side takes a deserved 3-1 lead to Russia for Wednesday's return leg after a sweltering night of real Champions League quality on and off the pitch - the likes of which has not been seen in this part of eastern France since Gerard Houllier's side stylishly saw off Real Madrid some five years ago. Lyon's status and swagger was built on occasions like this, but they lost that verve under the control of Claude Puel. Even the former coach's run to the 2010 semi-final was authored by scrappy, rather than sexy, soccer.
The atmosphere was so powerful and irresistible that it even enveloped Rubin, with the Russian side seemingly caught up in the moment and certainly far less coy than its normal self, playing a far higher defensive line (even with five at the back), and taking uncharacteristic risks. This was exactly like knockout ties should be, whatever the stakes; full-blooded, no fear, end-to-end entertainment. It was a breathless spectacle, and all the better for it.
It's hard to separate the pervasive ambience from the new regime at Lyon. Garde has barely had time to get his name stenciled on his office door since replacing Puel at the helm of the erstwhile French champion and has had precious little cash to change the face of his squad. His one signing has been young defender Bakary Kone from Guingamp, who joined last Thursday. Kone had never played in the top division before last Saturday, and here he was pressed into service in Europe's premier club competition. His case sums up the current attitude at Lyon: Yes we can.
So what's different under Garde? "The spirit," Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanic frankly tells FOXSoccer.com after the game. "Simply, our game has changed. We play a lot more football, and we have a lot more freedom. The coach has put it in our heads that we can play."
The notion of top players taking personal responsibility and responding to trust is a complex one, but certainly a bit of space is benefitting this group. How president Jean-Michel Aulas must rue his decision to pursue Puel with such vigor before making him general manager in 2008. Puel's predecessor Alain Perrin had won the league and cup double in 2007/08 without garnering much in the way of respect and status. When Perrin's name had been linked with the Lyon job a few years before his appointment, Aulas' influential chief advisor Bernard Lacombe had scoffed: "You don't give a Skoda driver the keys to a Ferrari."
The last laugh was, in fact, Perrin's. In signing Puel and giving him a bigger role with expanded responsibility, Aulas had left the keys with a painfully fussy, plodding driver - and one who didn't take back-seat instruction from anyone. Since Puel's departure, Lyon's players have been queuing up to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of his harsh, austere and autonomous reign. The powers that be at the club have learned their lesson, and Garde's appointment (as 'technical director', meaning basically he is just the coach) marks a return to the old, layered structure of responsibility at the club. This had been pivotal in Lyon's seven successive league titles between 2002 and 2008; a period that nevertheless saw the club go through four different coaches. The man who picks the team and decides the tactics is just that. No more, no less.
It seems to be little coincidence that the whole club - players, officials, and supporters - is happier with this return to the familiar, a reminder of happier times when the trophies flowed relentlessly.
"It's a bit too early to say that this is the old Lyon," warned Michel Bastos last week. Yet the confidence built by a strong, democratic collective is clear.
"I hope that we'll do great things all together," said Jimmy Briand, scorer of the third goal against Rubin, post-match.
Lyon may have enjoyed unprecedented success at the dawn of the 21st century, but was never truly loved by the French public. They craved something else; some excitement, some daring, something to faire nous rever ('make us dream'), which Marseille, Paris Saint-Germain and local rivals St Etienne have all managed on the European stage in years past. By going back to the future, Lyon might at last be ready to find the one thing that always eluded it - genuine admiration.
The Champions League would be the ideal place to do it.