Lost in the shuffle of their bad form and a more intriguing tie between their Rhone rivals, Saint-Étienne and Manchester United, one may have forgotten that Lyon are in action in the Europa League this evening. While progression in the Champions’ League would have been preferred, Lyon’s eight point haul in the group stages of that competition did mean that they were seeded in the Europa League draw. Their reward was a middling one; Lyon will feel lucky to have avoided the likes of Athletic Bilbao, Villarreal or Manchester United, but Dutch side AZ Alkmaar are no easy mark, especially considering their recent history in Europe’s second competition.
Finalists in the old UEFA Cup in 1981, AZ Alkmaar hardly boast the illustrious European history of Lyon, but, after enduring a lengthy spell in the second division in the eighties and nineties, the stewardship of chairman erstwhile chairman Dirk Scheringa saw the team earn promotion and become a European regular, even winning an unlikely Eredivisie title in 2008-9, before the bankruptcy of Scheringa’s DSB Bank.
In the decade since, the club have been continually forced to sell much of their top talent (Moussa Dembélé, Jeremain Lens, Vincent Janssen) but have nevertheless managed to be arguably the “fourth team” in the Netherlands, behind the three behemoths, Feyenoord, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.
They have qualified for the quarter-finals of this competition twice in the last four years; while they haven’t captured any particularly notable scalps in those runs, they have shown an impressive ability to make things difficult for more highly regarded opposition, a category into which Lyon, despite their recent struggles, firmly fall.
AZ, like many Dutch sides, play a 4-3-3, and have had a fairly consistent first eleven to call upon this season. Manager John van den Brom, a former Dutch international, was dismissed from his previous job at Ajax, but has massively improved the team defensively by imposing an aggressive pressing scheme.
The team’s leading scorer is 6′ 5″ Wout Weghorst, but the big former Heracles man is more than a lump in the box; he is also an adept tackler who leads the team’s press from the front. The wide players should be the Iranian Alireza Jahanbakhsh on the right, and one of the young duo of Muamer Tankovic or Dabney dos Santos on the left. Dos Santos has pace to burn and may get the nod after Christophe Jallet’s calamitous showing against Guingamp at the weekend.
Midfield is in a state of flux; Swedish right back Mattias Johansson is suspended for the first leg, which means Derrick Luckassen, normally the defensive midfielder, may be pressed into service in his stead. Ben Rienstra played at the base of midfield at the weekend and should keep his place there, with Mats Seuntjens and Illiass Ben Hassano ahead of him.
Former Aston Villa man Ron Vlaar has been a reliable presence in defence this season, but remains unavailable through injury, meaning the duo of the Belgian Stijn Wuytens and Rens van Eijden should start centrally, with the speedy Ridgeciano Haps at left back. Tim Krul arrived from Newcastle on loan in the winter and should continue at goalkeeper, having displaced the Argentine Sergio Rochet, whose uneven performances were a source of frustration to van den Brom.
Lyon are also dealing with a handful of absences, notably Mathieu Valbuena. Le Petit Velo is one of few Lyon players who can be proud of his season to date, but after coming off against Nancy last Wednesday, he is yet to feature and didn’t make the trip to Alkmaar. In his absence, on the road in Europe, Bruno Genesio may opt for a 4-3-3 for added solidity.
A midfield trio of Maxime Gonalons and two of Lucas Tousart, Corentin Tolisso and Jordan Ferri will add a bit more bite against a combative AZ, while also providing a touch more height on set pieces; AZ have scored seven goals from free kicks in the Eredivisie, and Lyon will have to be mindful of the height of Weghorst.
In attack, Memphis Depay, who would normally deputise for Valbuena on the left, is cup-tied; provided Genesio does play a 4-3-3, Lyon will likely play Maxwel Cornet on the left, with one of Rachid Ghezzal or Nabil Fékir on the right. Lacking a serviceable deputy for Alexandre Lacazette, the striker looks set to start on his own up top, although playing a 4-2-3-1 with Fékir off of Lacazette and Ghezzal and Cornet wide is also a possibility.
In defence, Rafael continues to be a miss with an adductor injury; Christophe Jallet will look to shake off a poor performance at the weekend at right back, with Jérémy Morel on the opposite flank to give Lyon’s fullbacks a decidedly vintage cast. In central defence, Mouctar Diakhaby looked off the pace against Guingamp in his return from injury, but should get the start next to Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh, AZ Alkmaar
The young Iranian winger plays on the right of AZ’s 4-3-3 and has contributed six goals and six assists this season. A former teammate of van Eijden’s at NEC, he struggled to settle last season, but has become a regular this campaign, shaking off a groin injury in the autumn to become the team’s catalyst in attack. His importance was underlined earlier in the competition in AZ losing at home to Maccabi Tel Aviv, Jahanbaksh having refused to take the pitch against an Israeli side.
Corentin Tolisso, Olympique Lyonnais
After a promising two years in the first team, the academy product’s performances have slipped to some extent this season. Part of that drop in form is due to being used out of position and through a number of tactical formations, but there have also been questions surrounding his maturity, as his foolish dismissal against Saint-Etienne showed. A redemptive performance in a key match will do much to burnish his reputation in the eyes of Lyon’s dissatisfied fans.
AZ Alkmaar 1-1 Olympique Lyonnais