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Champions League PREVIEW: Lyon vs Zenit (4/11/15)

Eric Devin previews Zenit’s trip to Lyon, in a game where three points is a must for the home side if they are to have any hope in qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages.

Gifted a less-than-rigorous group, it would be unfair to give Lyon any sort of praise for their European performances thus far. Zenit St. Petersburg, Valencia and Gent hardly make up a murder’s row of opponents, but with a solitary point after three matches, Lyon sit above the Belgian side only on goal difference.

Even that result is down to Valencia benefitting from two own goals during Gent’s visit to the Mestalla a fortnight ago. While Lyon still have a strong chance at progressing from the group stage, with just three matches to play, the team no longer control their own destiny and winning all of their remaining matches is imperative.

Sure, the club has been dealt a tough hand with the injury to Nabil Fekir, to say nothing of the long-term absences of Clement Grenier and Guieda Fofana, but a considerable sum had been spent in the summer to bolster the squad in the hopes of being able to cope with the rigours of both league and European competition.

These were players of international quality, with Champions’ League experience; Mathieu Valbuena, Rafael, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Jeremy Morel had all featured in the competition before. Sergei Darder and Claudio Beauvue hadn’t, but looked to be key cogs nonetheless for a squad which had done remarkably well with a limited amount of rotation the previous campaign.

Despite all of these additions, Lyon have failed to impress both domestically and in Europe, their poor finishing being most often at fault. Alexandre Lacazette, so influential last season, has repeatedly disappointed, snatching at chances at displaying a first touch unbecoming of Ligue 1’s reigning top scorer. Valbuena and Beauvue have been willing workers, but both have largely unconvincing as well.

Further back, where the club had been able to count on the odd goal from midfield, Corentin Tolisso and Jordan Ferri, scorers of a combined eight goals (and seven assists) in the league have likewise gone silent, with Tolisso’s goal against Bastia in Week 7 the duo’s only tally to date.

Lyon need wins, particularly in this competition, and without the ability to score on a consistent basis, it is easy to see why the club lag behind their group-mates. Admittedly, the club have offered more going forward in their past three matches, but the likes of relegation-threatened Toulouse and Troyes are hardly the calibre of a Zenit side studded with established internationals. And while displaying more impetus in attack has been a fine way to raise spirits, the finishing has still been dismal, with Lacazette in particular spurning several fine chances against Troyes on Saturday.

Zenit, meanwhile, have their own woes. As the Russian season heads towards its winter break, the club have filled the nets like no other, netting ten goals in their last three matches. However, despite being positively incandescent going forward at times, Andre Villas-Boas’ counterattacking machine par excellence has struggled to find consistency. In those three matches, Zenit thumped troubled Anzhi 5-1 and defeated Tosno, who are in the relegation places of the second division 5-0, but also struggled in a scoreless draw at home to Mordovia, who sit second to last in the Premier League.

Even with the division’s second-best goal difference, this inconsistency sees the team mired in fourth place, ten points off leaders CSKA. While they are just a point behind second-placed Lokomotiv, the club’s unevenness has been massively frustrating, and Villas-Boas has announced he will step down come the end of the season.

The Champions’ League has been a fine counterweight to this, though, as the team have won their first three matches, the only club in the competition to do so. While a win would ensure their progression to the knockout stages, there may be hope for Lyon that the Russian side will have one eye on a huge match scheduled for Sunday, as a trip to Lokomotiv that would present the team with a great opportunity to move into second place.

Lyon will, however, themselves be tempted to look ahead, though, as they host regional rival Saint-Etienne in a match that would see the winner take possession of second place ahead of the international break. With so many mitigating factors, this match seems a bit more difficult to call with any confidence, especially compared to the two clubs’ meeting a fortnight ago in Russia.

On a brisk night at the Petrovsky Stadium, Zenit’s counter-attacking prowess was on full display, goals from Hulk, Artem Dzyuba and Danny earning a deserved 3-1 win. Now, Lyon’s form has improved, but it remains to be seen whether Hubert Fournier can install the necessary level of belief in the players to make them convinced that their stay in the competition can be extended.

Team News and Tactics 

Lyon are, unbelievably, in better shape injury-wise than they were in these two teams’ previous encounter. Henri Bedimo has returned from the injury list, but Jeremy Morel should retain his place at left back. Besides Fekir, Fofana and Grenier, young attacker Aldo Kalulu remains out, as does Milan Bisevac.

For Zenit, the club were quite pleased to see influential Italian right back Domenico Criscito pass a late fitness test a fortnight ago. This time around, Hulk had been a doubt, a real worry for Villas-Boas, as the burly Brazilian has been at the heart of so much of Zenit’s offense this campaign. However, he has been confirmed to be available for the match, leaving Ezequiel Garay and Viktor Faizulin the only absentees. Faizulin is a squad player and his absence isn’t an important one, but that of Garay is another story.

The former Benfica man has been a rock at the heart of Zenit’s defence since his arrival last summer, and the drop in quality with him out of the side is considerable. Neto and Nicholas Lombaerts will partner in central defence, but neither has the same presence about their play as Garay, an important factor for a team that is so fond of throwing players forward, particularly the midfield pairing of Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel.

Nevertheless, both teams’ lineups are fairly easy to predict in terms of both tactics and personnel. Lyon will set out their stall with their trademark diamond 4-4-2, with a defence of Jallet, Yanga-Mbiwa, Umtiti and Morel protecting Anthony Lopes’ goal. Maxime Gonalons, who had played the club’s two most recent domestic matches in central defence owing to injuries and suspensions, will anchor the midfield, while Corentin Tolisso will partner one of Jordan Ferri or Sergei Darder behind Mathieu Valbuena.

Darder had started the last time the clubs met, but was removed at halftime. He has turned in more adept performances in the league, but Ferri is better equipped to deal with the way that Zenit like to get forward, so look for the academy graduate to get the nod. In the absence of any other proven forwards, Lacazette and Beauvue will once again be deployed up top, despite still being off the boil.

Zenit will also stay true to form and play their 4-2-3-1. With Garay absent, the defence will line up as Igor Smolnikov (who had missed the last match) at right back, with Neto, Lombaerts and Criscito across the back line. Mikhail Kerzhakov had seemed to replace Yuri Lodygin in goal, having featured for much of October, but the summer arrival only made the bench in the club’s last two matches, and his place this evening is still in doubt.

Further forwards, the rest of the team essentially picks itself; Axel Witsel and Javi are the central midfielders, with fit-again Hulk, Danny and Oleg Shatov across the attack. Towering Russian international Artem Dzyuba will lead the line, a player who has a surprising bit of pace for his nearly two-meter frame.

Danger Men 

Artem Dzyuba, Zenit St. Petersburg

The giant striker scored once in the reverse fixture, but really should have had a hat trick. As Laurent Depoitre showed in Lyon’s opening fixture, Lyon really have an issue dealing with bigger target-man style strikers, and when they are as versatile as Dzubya, it is easy to see why.

Able to run onto a through ball or get on the receiving end of a cross with equal proficiency, Russian international has been at the heart of a transformed Zenit this season, his presence the catalyst for opening up channels for the likes of Hulk and Danny to attack on the counter. Lyon will need to attack in this match, and if they do get caught out, look for Dzubya to be the difference at the opposite end of the pitch.

Claudio Beauvue, Lyon

While the diminutive former Guingamp man has done little in his European encounters, he does have a goal and two assists in last two domestic appearances. Taking and scoring the decisive penalty against ten-man Troyes may not seem like much of an achievement, but the confidence it will give Beauvue shouldn’t be underestimated. Always a willing worker, with the Russian side potentially easing up ahead of their important match with Lokomotiv, Beauvue’s determination could easily be the difference in this match.

Prediction 

Lyon 2-1 Zenit

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