Eric Devin previews Lyon’s Champions League opener in Belgium against Gent.
After some years in the wilderness, including last year’s uncomfortable Europa League exit to Astra Giurgiu, Olympique Lyonnais are finally back in the Champions’ League proper. Last seen exiting on penalties to Cypriot upstarts APOEL in the round of 16 some three seasons ago, that expensive side have all but departed, and the club have returned to their roots with a youth-based philosophy.
The likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Anthony Lopes and Samuel Umtiti exceeded all expectations last year, even if they did go slightly off the boil down the stretch. Finishing second, especially the way that the campaign had started, was a huge achievement, and the excitement to see Hubert Fournier’s young charges taking on Europe’s heavyweights was massive.
Despite only being a third seed, Lyon received a very favorable group draw, with Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg and Gent. With the Portuguese club on its usual off-loading rampage, the Russians forced to sell key striker Salomon Rondon under the RPL’s new rules regarding foreign players and Gent an inexperienced newcomer to the competition, the stars seemed to be aligning to give Les Gones an excellent shot at progressing to the knockout rounds.
Cue disaster, then, as Nabil Fekir, the team’s attacking fulcrum, has been lost for approximately six months. The diminutive attacker always seemed to chip in with crucial goals and assists when needed, but with his loss, the team seems even more bereft of ideas going forward.
With Alexandre Lacazette thus far struggling to make his mark after last season’s brilliant performance, the team have scored only six times in five matches, but four of those were from Fekir. New arrivals Claudio Beauvue and Mathieu Valbuena have had their moments, but they and Lacazette still seem to be struggling to find a common language. The defence has, however, been solid, as four of the team’s five matches have seen their opponents fail to score, a 2-1 loss to Rennes the only exception.
Gent, who Lyon visit this evening, were also a bit of a surprise package last season. With usual suspects Anderlecht and Club Brugge falling short of their habitual performances, the club won their first ever title and with it, qualification to the Champions’ League.
This season, the club have started in a fashion similarly uneven to Lyon’s, failing to score many, but also being relatively solid at the back. With seven goals scored but only five conceded after ten matches, they are on a similar trajectory to last season, where they had the league’s best defence over the playoffs and regular season, but were perhaps a bit overly reliant on leading scorer Laurent Depoitre’s physicality to get them goals.
Team News and Tactics
With Benfica and Zenit looming in their next two matches, Lyon have to seize the opportunity presented to them. Bearing that in mind, the club will undoubtedly line up in their customary 4-4-2 diamond, with Lacazette and Beauvue ahead of Valbuena. There is some doubt as to whether new signing Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will retain his place ahead of the more experienced Milan Bisevac, especially with the bulky Depoitre a more physical presence, but all should be as expected for Lyon, Fekir’s injury notwithstanding. Clement Grenier and Gueida Fofana remain long-term absences as well, and Sergei Darder is still working his way towards match fitness and won’t figure in this match, either.
For Gent, the team have thus far gone with a three-man back line, with Swedish international Erik Johanssen anchoring the defence. However, Johanssen, the team’s only player with Champions’ League experience, is set to miss this match, which may mean a more typical four man defence, with two holding players and one creative midfielder, creating a counter-attacking 4-3-3 not dissimilar to Monaco with Dimitar Berbatov.
However the defence sets up, the team’s method in attack will still be to get balls upfield to the imposing Depoitre, who can either take defenders on himself, or lay the ball off for speedy wingers cutting inside. The young Nigerian Moses Simon and fellow wingers Danijel Milicevic and Benito Raman aren’t exactly prolific goalscorers, but each contributed at least seven goals last year across all competitions and their pace may be enough to trouble aging fullbacks Christophe Jallet and Henri Bedimo.
Beauvue (Lyon)– The diminutive and experienced Mathieu Valbuena may have been the more heralded acquisition, but the former Chateauroux man’s transformation under Jocelyn Gourvennec was remarkable.
Having previously been used as a wide player, Beauvue was moved inside and he and Christophe Mandanne formed one of the league’s most deadly strike partnerships, securing Guingamp’s safety and being the driving force behind a surprise appearance in the Europa League round of 32.
His combination of energy, pace and aerial ability make him a handful for any defence, and as his goal against Caen showed, his feet aren’t half bad, either.
Depoitre (Gent)– A physical presence at 6′ 3″ and over 200 pounds, Depoitre has scored with regularity across all his stops in Belgium. At 26, he has been a slow burner, but despite continued moves up the ladder of the Belgian league, his consistency has been remarkable. Lyon’s center back pairing of Umtiti and Bisevac or Yanga-Mbiwa are no sylphs themselves, but limiting the Gent striker is easier said than done.
Despite having made their name on their defensive abilities thus far, both Gent, in front of their home fans, and Lyon, playing what they hope will be the group whipping boy, should be active going forward. Neither side have anything to gain from a draw, as their hopes of progression to the knockout stages or the Europa League depend on results against each other. With that in mind, the hope here is that an open match will take place, with Lyon’s class and experience just edging the Belgians.
Prediction: Gent 1 Lyon 2