There was once a time when other clubs dreaded facing Lyon in the Champions League. Ten years ago, they were the French giants, a team to be feared and the perpetual dark horse of the competition.
Those were the years of Juninho, Malouda, and Benzema, followed by Lloris, Toulalan, and Lisandro. It was an age of attractive football, beautiful teamwork, and a work ethic that put many others to shame. This was a club that was going to win it all. And they came so close – in 2010, they reached the Champions League semifinals for the first time. Across the world, all Lyonnais held their breaths – was this it? The moment that all had been waiting for?
Sadly, it was not to be, as they lost decisively to Bayern Munich. Lyon’s Champions League ambitions were buried in the Allianz Arena, and though they would reach the knockout rounds the next two seasons, the shining hope that represented Lyon’s European dreams had dimmed.
It was as if the club realized that no matter how hard they tried, they were too small to offer a real challenge to the bigger teams. Coupled with failing domestic campaigns – they never regained the title after losing it in 2008 – the club lost its allure as a potential European heavyweight. And with Monaco and PSG being purchased by billionaire investors soon after, Lyon felt the financial gulf more than ever.
It was at this point that the club took a step back and re-evaluated their ambitions, both in France and in Europe. Knowing that current financial disparities would not allow the club to be truly competitive, Lyon chairman Jean-Michel Aulas formulated a new plan. By building their own stadium, Lyon would be in a much better position to challenge PSG as well as push for Europe. The problem? It was a long term plan that would not deliver rewards until over a decade later.
Aulas forged ahead with his plan anyway. Given the monetary loss from 4 years of poor transfer strategy (buying expensive players that failed to deliver), Lyon tightened their purse strings and instead turned to their academy for help.
Players like Alexandre Lacazette, Samuel Umtiti, and Corentin Tolisso revitalized Lyon’s squad with their energy and exuberance. And while their collective talents did not lead to another title win, they continuously kept Lyon in the top 5, which meant European football and more importantly, additional broadcasting income to pay off Lyon’s stadium debt.
So where does this leave Lyon now?
After a decade of what one can essentially call rebuilding, Lyon has built up a squad that’s one of their strongest in a long time. Against all odds, they kept Nabil Fekir, and while they lost Mariano, they signed an even more exciting Moussa Dembélé. Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traoré continue their fine forms from last season, and new signing Martin Terrier already looks to be one of Ligue 1’s promising young stars. The club did lose Amine Gouiri to injury this summer, but they were quick to sign the equally promising Lenny Pintor.
In midfield, Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar form a duo that others can only dream of. Balanced by Lucas Tousart and amplified by Nabil Fekir, they form what is arguably the best midfield in Ligue 1. Perhaps Lyon should have signed another defensive midfielder this summer, but the club is content to put their faith in the young Pape Cheikh Diop, who will serve as Tousart’s deputy this season.
Defensively, Lyon are still weak, as they failed to sign a top quality central defender, but Jason Denayer looks promising and may prove to be a surprise. However, Jeremy Morel and Marcelo are not Champions League quality, and if there is one sector that will let Lyon down, it will be their central defense. However, Ferland Mendy has been phenomenal at left-back while at right, Lyon have an embarrassment of riches, with not one but three quality right-backs to choose from. In goal, Anthony Lopes has been excellent. If not for his temper, he would have been voted best goalkeeper of Ligue 1 last season (sorry Steve Mandanda fans, but it’s true).
Lyon’s squad is in great shape, and therefore, they should have ambitious European goals to match their ambitious domestic campaign.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Going back to Lyon’s long term plan, Aulas has made it clear that while results are a good thing, Lyon’s goal this season is another top 3 finish and progression to the knockout stages of the Champions League. Anything more than that is a happy bonus.
What this means for the Champions League is this – Lyon will not expect nor try to defeat Manchester City, who are expected to win the group. Lyon will instead conserve their energy for their domestic campaign, which has already hit roadblocks (they have 6 points out of 12 so far).
Instead, Lyon will make more of an effort for second place, but this plan can easily backfire because Shakhtar and Hoffenheim will attempt to do the same. While neither club has the individual qualities of Lyon, Shakhtar is a frequent Champions League participant and no stranger to facing bigger teams. Hoffenheim makes up for any deficiencies with their spirit and their manager, who has admirably led a team that was languishing in the German 5th division only ten years ago.
While Lyon should theoretically place better than the other two teams, they also flub games they should win, so if Hoffenheim or Shakhtar take their chances, they will be in real danger for missing out on second place. Worse, Lyon will need to play their home match against the Ukranians in an empty stadium (UEFA punishment for fan behavior), so Shakhtar already has a leg up.
If – and this is a big if – Lyon get their act together and place second, I would not expect the team to make it past the round of 16. Head to head against one of the bigger teams, Lyon doesn’t have the defensive depth or the coaching magic to see them through. At least in the group stages, there are 6 games to figure things out.
Players to watch:
Bertrand Traoré – He’s been on fire since this summer. The only undisputed starter on the whole team at the moment, he’s been doing it all – creating space, taking chances, tiring out opposing defenders, and scoring. If he continues as he has been the past few months, expect him to be one of Lyon’s most decisive players.
Houssem Aouar – He’s been coming into his own last season, and barring his slow start this year, you can expect him to be magical in the midfield. Given the squad’s stability and lack of major departures, he’ll be the creative support for Fekir and Depay.
Martin Terrier – A joy to watch, he’ll be eager to make his Champions League debut with a splash. He works hard, and unlike many strikers, he will create scoring chances by himself. He’ll likely be brought in as a sub, but he can be counted on to bring energy to a flagging second half.
By: Rabeeta Farooque
Photo: REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot