FootballFootball LeagueLigue 1

Goals, wins and roulette spins: whisper it quietly, but are Lyon back?

November 8, 2019January 6th, 2022

TO say that Lyon’s 3-1 win over Benfica in the Champions League on Tuesday had been a long time coming would be something of an understatement.

Lyon’s previous home, the crumbly, atmospheric Stade Gerland, staged some unforgettable Champions League matches, including three famous victories over Real Madrid in the late 2000s, but since moving into their new arena, the slick, modern Groupama Stadium, in January 2016, the only team that OL had managed to beat beneath the lights in world football’s premier club competition was Dinamo Zagreb.

Since that victory in September 2016, Lyon had gone seven home games without victory in the Champions League, drawing the last six in succession. With Tuesday’s victory, Rudi Garcia’s side ended that run, atoned for their 2-1 loss to Benfica in the reverse fixture and left themselves well placed to reach the knockout phase for the second season running. Second in Group G, two points below leaders RB Leipzig and three points clear of third-place Zenit Saint Petersburg, OL can secure a berth in the round of 16 with victory away to Zenit later this month.

Over and above the statistical consequences of victory, Lyon’s performance – albeit an occasionally nervy one – showcased some of the progress that they have made since Garcia’s bitterly divisive appointment as the successor to Sylvinho in mid-October.

Garcia’s most notable tactical adjustment has been to abandon Sylvinho’s conservative 4-3-3 formation for a 4-4-2 system in which the full-backs are granted greater liberty to attack and the nominal wide midfielders, Houssem Aouar on the left and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde on the right, are encouraged to come infield in support of the front two.

Sylvinho struggled to get the best out of Aouar and was not always able to find room in his starting XI for Reine-Adélaïde, a close-season signing from Angers, but both players have come to the fore under Garcia. Reine-Adélaïde produced a sublime assist to tee up Memphis Depay in last weekend’s 3-2 success at Toulouse – a roulette turn, followed by a perfectly weighted lay-off – and against Benfica it was Aouar’s turn to shine, the 21-year-old leaving Tomás Tavares for dead on the left in the 33rd minute and crossing with the outside of his right foot for Depay to volley in Lyon’s second goal.

Danish centre-back Joachim Andersen had put Lyon ahead in the fourth minute, heading in from a well-worked corner routine to score his first goal for the club after a difficult start to life in France following his club-record €24 million summer move from Sampdoria.

In central midfield, another new recruit, Thiago Mendes, produced perhaps his best display in a Lyon shirt since his own switch from Lille. The 27-year-old Brazilian proved unsuited to the solitary number six role earmarked for him by Sylvinho, but he has looked more at ease alongside Lucas Tousart in a two-man midfield that recalls the set-up in which he played his best football at Lille.

Perhaps the chief beneficiary of Garcia’s arrival has been Depay, who is now playing alongside Moussa Dembélé in the central striking position where he feels he is at his best. His strike against Benfica was his 50th goal in Lyon’s colours and with 11 goals (and one assist) in 14 matches this term, he has made his most productive start to a campaign since his January 2017 arrival from Manchester United.

Haris Seferović’s 76th-minute effort for Benfica left Lyon hanging on until substitute Bertrand Traoré finally put the game to bed with a minute of normal time remaining, but Garcia was pleased by the character his players showed during the game’s tense final stages, declaring that it was evidence of a nascent “esprit de corps”.

Right-back Léo Dubois felt Lyon’s display showed that “the basis” of a style of play was now in place, while Aouar hailed Garcia’s impact on the team’s performances. “It’s still just the start with the coach, but he’s already given us a huge amount,” said the France Under-21 international. “We’re going to fully savour this victory and then we’ll throw ourselves into our work to prepare for the Olympico.”

Following previous victories over Metz and Toulouse, Lyon have now won three games in a row for the first time this season and will go into Sunday’s showdown with fourth-place Marseille only three points off the Champions League positions in 10th place. The win over Benfica was not without cost, however, with Depay picking up a hamstring injury that rules him out of the trip to Stade Vélodrome. Garcia will also have to do without the suspended Tousart.

While the win over Benfica brought signs of encouragement, it also provided evidence that all is not yet a bed of roses at Lyon. Garcia’s name was jeered by the home fans when the line-ups were announced before the game and both Traoré and Marcelo were whistled when they came on as substitutes in the second half.

Traoré, who has been criticised by Lyon’s supporters over his poor performances this season, did not celebrate after his goal made the game safe. Marcelo, meanwhile, has become a target of hostility after angrily clashing with a gaggle of supporters who had gathered at Lisbon Airport to hurl abuse at the players following their 2-1 loss at Benfica last month. The Brazilian centre-back’s wife, Tatiane Guedes, has since taken to Instagram to warn the supposed ringleader of the tormentors that she is prepared to take (unspecified) action against him if he does not leave her husband in peace.

Garcia will not find any respite from the jeers at the Vélodrome, where fresh memories of the decay that he allowed to set in during his final months as Marseille coach mean he can expect a noisy and unwelcoming reception. But on the pitch, at least, things are starting to sound a little more harmonious.