x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Lloris is Lyon's Mr Confident

Marcotti's man What marks out the French No 1 is his ability to recover from his mistakes and turn in match-winning performances.

Lloris trains at the Bernabeu, the stadium where Lyon knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions League on Wednesday.
Lloris trains at the Bernabeu, the stadium where Lyon knocked Real Madrid out of the Champions League on Wednesday.

Dominique Baratelli had heard it all before. A former French international who played seven seasons for his hometown club, people felt they knew him and - to some degree - owned him. Strangers were constantly approaching him with "hot tips" of lads he should look at in his capacity as scout for Nice. Most of these boys were duds, but he still went along to watch, if just to be polite.

And also because, once in a while, he would come across something special. Like the day he set eyes on Hugo Lloris. The 12-year-old was keeping goal for Cimiez on a dusty field on the outskirts of Nice. What struck Baratelli first and foremost was the way Lloris's teammates seemed in awe of him. Against a team of bigger - and better - boys, he single-handedly urged his teammates forward, as if to say "you guys try to score, don't worry, I'll keep them out."

Baratelli knew he had to sign him up for Nice - and he did. Not that Lloris needed much convincing, coming face to face with one of his heroes. He rolled through the club's youth ranks, at each stage progressing in parallel through the French FA's youth teams, until he won the European Under 19 championships with Les Bleus. That season, he made his Nice first-team debut, keeping a clean sheet for 120 minutes in the French league cup. Later that year, he played his first game in Le Championnat for Nice and, that summer, he won his first under 21 cap. Not a bad way to start a career.

By August he had beaten out Damien Gregorini, the incumbent stopper whom Nice had signed with great fanfare from Marseille a few years earlier. He spent two seasons as Nice's No 1, making headlines as much for his personality - at the same time exuberant and ice cool - as for his performances, which, on the whole, were good, with the odd howler thrown in. But that was - and still is - the thing with Lloris.

Mistakes did not seem to affect him, and neither did success. He appeared to take everything in his stride, with that same goofy grin. By the summer of 2008, Lyon came calling but they were not the only ones. AC Milan had also courted him long and hard a year before, but Lloris felt he was too young to leave France. Lyon were different and not just because they were a French side. Having won seven consecutive French titles, they needed a new goalkeeper, as Gregory Coupet was leaving for Atletico Madrid.

Lloris felt the time - and the team - was right. Nice did too, particularly since they were able to sell him for a whopping ?8.3million (Dh41.5m), plus 15 per cent of any resale. Anyone who had any doubts saw them dissolve almost immediately. In his first outing, the "Trophee des Champions", the season curtain raiser between the French champions and the cup winners, he put on a goalkeeping clinic against Bordeaux, including an eye-popping close-range reflex save from Marouane Chamakh. The game went to penalties, but, despite his two saves, Lyon lost.

Still, he left the ground with the fans chanting his name. The mutual love affair had begun. Since then, Lloris has continued to grow, establishing himself this season as France's undisputed No 1 as well. At 6ft 3ins, he commands the penalty area with the authority of a bigger man. But, most of all, he provides that most important of intangibles: the back four has absolute faith in him. Even this year, as injuries decimated Lyon's defence and manager Claude Puel was forced to turn to youngsters and recycled midfielders, the one constant has been the keeper, a source of confidence and inspiration. And, even when he has an off-day, he bounces back almost instantly.

One such performance, in a 1-1 draw against Paris St Germain last September, stands out. After coming off his line and failing to punch the ball away, he was mocked by the home fans and, from a distance appeared shaken. "Appeared" is the operative word here. A minute later he twisted his body into an impossible-looking position to save Guillaume Horau's goal-bound point-blank header. At 23, you get the sense that he is only going to improve. He has only scratched the surface of his prodigious athletic skills and, once he marries them with his innate sense of positioning and mental toughness, he will be challenging the world's best.

But, even when does get beaten, you just know how he'll handle it. "Mistakes happen and once they've happened, they're done," he says. "Why dwell on it? I forget about my mistakes the second after they occur. I just push them out of my mind as if they never happened." Increasingly, given his performances, he has had fewer and fewer mistakes to forget. sports@thenational.ae Lyon v St Etienne, midnight tomorrow, Aljazeera Sport 1