Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Lyon on road to success
It sounds like a school team away day. Everyone piling into a minibus, with kit and boots in tow, set for a cramped and lengthy journey, which is likely to involve crisps, fizzy drinks and vomit, though not necessarily in that order.
• Brassell: Lloris the key for Lyon
Substitute the in-drive meal with pasta and energy drinks, and one minibus for nine, and you have an idea of what the Lyon squad have gone through over some 800 kilometres to reach Munich to play Bayern in Wednesday night's Champions League semi-final first leg.
Despite the testing journey, whiled away by endless hands of poker, Lyon should head into their first ever last-four encounter at Europe's top table with confidence.
Most teams would welcome playing the second leg at home, especially with volcanic ash currently making flying hit-or-miss, but for Lyon the fact that Wednesday's opener is in Munich is perhaps even more helpful.
Only Bordeaux bettered Lyon's tally of three goals against in the group stages, and Liverpool and Real Madrid have both found to their cost that this Lyon is not easily tamed when venturing into foreign fields. The quarter-final, second leg 1-0 loss at Bordeaux, which secured their place in the semi-finals, may have been a defeat but it was also coach Claude Puel's pièce de résistance as he virtually shut down Laurent Blanc's team.
OL did not even register a shot on target in 90 minutes at Stade Chaban-Delmas, and still came out on top on aggregate against a team that, lest we forget, twice beat Bayern in the group stages. It may not be pleasing on the eye, but it does the job.
It is this ultra-defensive and uber-organised bloc that could prove Bayern's undoing. With their penchant for the counter-attack not best served in the home leg, with a 66,000-capacity crowd expecting the four-time European champions to dictate to a team that is underestimated outside and even inside French borders, Louis van Gaal's men could - like their fans - find themselves increasingly frustrated.
The multi-million euro-endorsed boot would be on the other foot if the first leg were in France, but if Lyon can get any sort of an advantage in Bavaria, then their ability to defend a lead will make Bayern's life tough at Stade Gerland.
Lyon's main problem will be how to keep Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery quiet over the two legs - Manchester United have already discovered how difficult that can be.
Lyon, though, have been given a helping hand from UEFA's disciplinary rules, which mean Mark van Bommel is suspended for the first leg. The Dutchman has been inspirational this season, with his ball-winning abilities almost unique in a Bayern midfield where only Bastian Schweinsteiger comes anywhere near matching his captain's determination and industry. Given Van Bommel's likely replacement, Anatoliy Tymoschuk, has played little over an hour of Bundesliga football since early December, it is asking a lot of the Ukrainian to match the former Barcelona midfielder's contribution. Consequently, service to the flanks will suffer, limiting Robben and Ribery's effectiveness.
If Bayern have Frank and Arjen as their very own Batman and, er, Robben, then Lyon boast a match-winning Superman in goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. The level-headed 23-year-old is unlikely to do anything as outlandish as wear his underpants outside his shorts, but he has already achieved iconic status for club and country.
"He's among the top three or four keepers in world," said Willy Sagnol last week in trying to persuade Bayern to lure Lloris to Bavaria, a Machiavellian move perhaps from a man who first made his name playing for Lyon's arch-rivals, Saint-Etienne. "He radiates calm, is intelligent, and his attitude is spot on. He hardly ever makes any mistakes, even if he can't make the unsaveable saves like Oliver Kahn used to." Bordeaux's Wendel, who saw a powerful, potentially tie-winning header pawed away acrobatically in the dying minutes of the quarter-final second leg, may beg to differ.
Bayern must certainly be envious of their last-four opponents as they scramble frantically for a successor to the inimitable Kahn. For the moment, the veteran Hans-Jorg Butt is the German league leaders' last rampart, and he and the often erratic defence in front of him, which will be shorn of the brilliant but banned Holger Badstuber in Munich, will have to fret over Lisandro Lopez.
If Lyon have got this far, it is largely thanks to their €24 million record signing. Four goals came in an 8-2 aggregate defeat of Anderlecht in the play-off round, while a 90th-minute equaliser against Liverpool took OL into the knockout stages. After providing the pass to allow Miralem Pjanic to equalise in Madrid and send his club into the last eight, Lisandro scored twice in Lyon's 3-1 first-leg win to pave the way past Bordeaux and take his Champions League tally to a healthy 20 goals in 38 games in the competition.
No lesser person than Aime Jacquet believed Lisandro's suspension alone for the second leg against Bordeaux would see Laurent Blanc's side all but maison et sec. "With Lisandro, Lyon would certainly go through," said the coach who picked up the 1998 World Cup. "His role is phenomenal. He's an exceptional player." If Licha, who will be aided and abetted by the visionary Pjanic and the in-form Michel Bastos, is accused of picking and choosing when to turn it on, Bayern's fragile and often leaden-legged centre-back pairing of Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demichelis should be aware that a Champions League semi-final is likely to be the sort of stage upon which Lisandro flicks the on switch to overdrive.
Accusing Lisandro of being a big-game player only, though, is unfair as it seems that he is just one in a team of limelight-seeking divas. While they have sunk Liverpool, Real Madrid, Fiorentina and Bordeaux this season, Lyon have been brought down to earth themselves by the 'might' of Sochaux, Nice, Montpellier and Lorient. Even Grenoble, already relegated to Ligue 2 with the Easter eggs barely eaten, have taken points off OL, who only appear willing to stir themselves when a reward more glamourous than a mere three points is at stake.
"Lyon's strong point is that they can be playing badly and then, all of a sudden, they produce a fantastic game," explained the man Lisandro was bought to replace, current Real Madrid malingerer Karim Benzema. "It often happens when they play a major team - Lyon raise their game to their opponents' level or even beyond it. They suddenly surpass themselves on the pitch and that element explains how they produce so many top results against big teams."
Up against Germany's greatest team, with four European Cups in a bulging trophy cabinet, and the eyes of European football turned upon them, Lyon will surely decide they can lift more than a finger in Munich.