Champions League Opposition Preview – Olympique Lyonnais
This article was written by freelance French football writer Andrew Gibney, who created the outstanding French Football Weekly website, which you can follow on Twitter here. Andrew also covers women’s football for various outlets.
France, Ligue 1 and Olympique Lyonnais were rocked when Nabil Fekir limped off after 14 minutes of the friendly encounter with Portugal last week. It came on the back of Lyon’s first league win against SM Caen – with the 22-year-old scoring a hat-trick in the 4-0 victory.
The international forward has undergone knee surgery and will miss the next six months of action, meaning his club will be without him for their entire Champions League group stage.
No one expected Les Gones to finish second last season, but the combination of a fruitful youth system and the 27 goals of Alexandre Lacazette combined beautifully.
Lyon played some of the best football in the country, the fearless, swashbuckling style was both entertaining and effective. Despite no major departures, this season has seen the club stumble in the opening five weeks.
Their formation hasn’t changed, with Fournier continuing to play his 4-4-2 diamond system. If you were being pedantic, you would perhaps label it 4-3-1-2 – but that would be splitting hairs.
Portuguese goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, still only 24 years old, is as dependable a base as you would expect from a gardien 10 years his senior. He may only be called upon once or twice per game, but his agility and reflexes have won Lyon more points than he has lost.
The back four has been upgraded with the addition of former Roma and Newcastle centre-back Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa. Rafael joined from Manchester United, giving Christophe Jallet competition at right-back, plus Henri Bedimo has looked back to his best on the opposite flank.
Over the past 18 months, Lyon have had to adjust to life without Clement Grenier and Gueida Fofana. Unlike other Ligue 1 clubs, this is not because they’ve been sold to the highest bidder, but through long-term, reoccurring injuries.
In their absence, Corentin Tolisso and Jordan Ferri have excellent beside the captain, Maxime Gonalons. The trio worked perfectly together – Tolisso is the all-action utility man. He is first and foremost a defensive player, but game-by-game he is adding more of an attacking impetus and can easily pop up with a header from set-pieces.
Ferri is the creator from deep. He has an excellent wide range of passes and has been known to test goalkeepers from deep. If Marco Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta are the best midfield trio in France, Lyon’s trident are not far behind.
Unlike last season, the forward line is causing most of Fournier’s headaches at the moment.
Signing Claudio Beauvue from Guingamp after he scored 17 goals in the league was a fantastic move. It then meant Lyon could sell Clinton N’Jie to Spurs for well over the asking price.
President Jean-Michel Aulas played his trump card, bringing Marseille hero, Mathieu Valbuena, back to France from his Russian odyssey. With Lacazette, Fekir, Beauvue and Valbuena, to fill three positions, it had been a bright summer.
Losing Fekir’s ability to play either as the No.10 or as Lacazette’s partner takes away Lyon’s flexibility and has put a lot of pressure on the two new signings.
Lacazette’s future was the main talking point this summer. After Lopes, Samuel Umtiti, Tolisso and Fekir had all signed new deals, Ligue 1’s top scorer took until the eve of the new season before putting pen to paper.
As Lyon struggled – one point in the opening three games – Lacazette cut a frustrated figure. Looking like a player being held against his will. Whispers began to spread suggesting that Lyon had made the wrong decision to keep the 24-year-old.
After over-coming a back-injury, he looks fitter and more engaged, but as Lyon struggled to break down Lille in a 0-0 draw on Saturday, the fans looked to the striker to make the difference.
Playing in the Champions League should provide Lacazette with a stage to show the rest of Europe what all the fuss is about. Once the new signings click, Fournier has the tools to create an exciting and more experienced side.
It may not click in time for Lyon’s trip to the Ghelamco Arena, but come the Belgian side’s visit to the Stade Gerland, all of Lyon will be hoping and praying that all the pieces fit together, and that there is not a huge Fekir-sized hole in the puzzle.