It’s UEFA Champions League time again. Can FC Barcelona make it past a tricky tie against Lyon? Probably.
Let’s get straight into it. Lyon are a very good team. Sitting 3rd in Ligue 1, they’ve managed impressive results this season against Thomas Tuchel’s PSG and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, with talents such as Nabil Fekir (who’s suspended for the 1st leg) Tanguy Ndombele, Houssem Aouar and Ferland Mendy, to namecheck a few. Fekir and Ndombele have been linked with high-profile moves abroad, while Mendy is widely reported to be a transfer target for Barcelona this summer. Combine that with the goalkeeping heroics of Anthony Lopes, the mercurial greatness of Memphis Depay, and a whole lot of other factors, it’s simple: Lyon are not a team to be taken lightly.
Capable of exploiting Barcelona’s weaknesses at will with fluid attacking football, pacy counters, fast passing, and skillful wingers, they have just what it takes to destroy a Blaugrana defense that, let’s be honest, has proven unable to cope with direct, fast attacks.
After winning the domestic double last season, the Champions League is the primary focus of FC Barcelona and its fans this season. In his first pre-season captain’s address on the pitch at Camp Nou after the Joan Gamper trophy match against Boca Juniors, Lionel Messi said as much. It’s the target, it’s what the players want. The club’s recent inability to progress past the quarterfinals of the competition is a massive issue for certain sections of supporters, and last year’s collapse remains a thorn in the side of their coach.
We need to talk about the elephant in the room. Roma. I don’t want to, but I have to. I still get flashbacks of that horrific evening. It was a horror show at Stadio Olimpico, from whistle to whistle. Ernesto Valverde was out-thought, out-coached and comprehensively beaten.
Roma wanted it more. The desire, the fire, the absolute will to lay it all on the line was there from Roma, and from Valverde and the players, it simply wasn’t. It’s a spectre of failure and embarrassment that hangs over Valverde and the players. It is a ghost that needs to be excised and laid to rest this season.
On recent performances alone, I’m worried about this tie. Barça have looked lethargic lately, as tiredness has crept in from the influx of games in three competitions. The form of Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suárez being prime concerns, along with the absence through injury of Arthur Melo, who has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with in midfield this season, and the shaky fitness of Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembélé.
These areas of weakness are so easily exploited by any manager who’s watched a tape of our games lately: press Ivan Rakitić in the centre, attack us down the wings, especially if Sergi Roberto is playing at full back and you can potentially have a field day. Nélson Semedo is a more dependable defensive choice, but not without his faults also.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. Barcelona have something that no one else does: the best player in the world. Lionel Messi, mercurial, inspirational, all the other superlatives you can think of, the greatest of all time.
Marc-André Ter Stegen, especially after his virtuoso performance against Athletic Bilbao, has arguably been the goalkeeper in the world this season. Clément Lenglet and Gerard Pique have put in individually brilliant performances at times. Semedo in recent weeks has shown himself to have more attacking prowess than people believed. Sure, tiredness has remained a factor, but the game against Sevilla in the Copa Del Rey was majestic, and it proves that these players are capable of churning out magic when needed. When Ernesto Valverde gets it right and applies the right amount of caution and flair, we are an unstoppable force.
This week, Barcelona renewed Valverde’s contract for another season. Right before this crucial first leg. Given what happened against Roma and the CL being such a factor for certain fans, the timing seems a little curious. More importance will probably now be put on this tie than ever, with Valverde needing to fulfill the club’s leap of trust in him.
I’m nervously predicting a difficult score draw away in Lyon and a convincing win at home at Camp Nou.
By: Emma-Gabriel Garcia
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images