Fit-again Fred firing for Lyon
The season could hardly have started in finer style for Lyon's fleet-footed front man Fred . Seven goals in nine games in all competitions helped get Olympique Lyonnais off to a flying start and provided proof, if it were needed, that last season's haul of 14 goals in 31 league matches as understudy to Norwegian international John Carew was no fluke. His superb early-season form was cut short by injury in a league game away to Marseille, however, forcing the Brazilian to look on from the sidelines as Lyon opened up a considerable points gap over the chasing pack.
Then, with Fred targeting a return to form in time for UEFA Champions League knockout rounds, the Lyon juggernaut suddenly ground to a halt. In what by their standards was a disastrous start to 2007, the five-time French champions picked up a mere five points out of a possible 18. The slump prompted the club to make changes up front, with Carew heading off to Aston Villa and Czech striker Milan Baros arriving in return.
The former Cruzeiro man's chance to stop the rot came on matchday 24. Faltering Lyon, the side with the worst record at the start of the second half of the season, entertained Lorient, the team with the best record in the same period and full of confidence on their travels after three straight wins. The Brazilian wasted little time in making his mark, controlling a long clearance from keeper Gregory Coupet eight minutes in before swivelling and firing home an unstoppable drive from 25 yards out to secure three welcome points.
Who needs Juninho?
A week later he was at it again. Trailing 1-0 away to fellow Champions League contenders Lille with just minutes remaining, Lyon were handed a lifeline with the award of a late free-kick. The job of deputising for suspended set-piece specialist Juninho fell to Fred. The talismanic striker did not disappoint, arrowing a thunderous strike into the top corner of Tony Sylva's goal. Spurred on by the striker's audacity, the league leaders grabbed all three points when Sebastien Squillaci flicked in a last-minute winner.
"Fred often used to take free-kicks at Cruzeiro, and if he wants to take another one, I'll let him have a go," commented Juninho, suitably impressed with his compatriot's stunning tenth goal of the season. Thanks to his recent exploits the Brazilian international, who scored OL's 100th Champions League goal against Steaua Bucharest last September, has confirmed his ability to play a decisive role in key matches.
There can be little doubt the 23-year-old owes his recent rise to prominence to the set-up at Lyon. Frequently overlooked in favour of Carew last season, Fred made the most of the opportunities he was given at the start of the season to forge an ever deeper understanding with his team-mates, most notably Juninho. Perhaps the finest example of the increasingly sublime synergy between the Brazilian duo came with Lyon's opening goal in their Champions League group win over Real Madrid last autumn.
I'm reaping the benefits now
With his ability to hold up the ball and bring people into play, Fred is much more than an out-and-out striker. "I am reaping the benefits of all my hard work last season," he says, clearly at ease with his role at the club. "I've learned to be patient and I'm enjoying myself now. I feel I've got a lot more freedom at OL. I've got the confidence to go and ask the coaches to focus on my game in front of goal," says the livewire forward. "I observe my team-mates to see which areas they're strong in, and I feel I'm well on the way to earning their respect. That's something I can sense with the fans and the media too. It's thanks to the whole team that I'm feeling so confident about my game."
In another indication of his wholehearted commitment to the Lyon cause, the in-form striker is at pains to play down suggestions that he and an increasingly impatient Milan Baros are fighting it out for one place. "We're going to need everyone to play a role in the championship and the Champions League. Milan is a great player who has got a lot offer," says the Brazilian diplomatically.
With Les Gones busy preparing for the upcoming Champions League clash with AS Roma, Fred makes his way back to the training ground to listen to Lyon legend and current member of the coaching team Sonny Anderson impart some wisdom. Referring to the esteem in which the former Barça and Monaco star is still held by the Lyon faithful, Fred jokes "I just hope that there's still room [in their hearts] for me." A goal or two against Francesco Totti and Co, and Fred's place in OL history would be assured…