COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
While there can be no doubt as to the status of Barcelona as favourites, French side Olympique Lyonnais will go into Tuesday’s Champions League Round of 16 First Leg with just about enough self-belief to make for an exciting match-up.
For one thing, their more illustrious opponents have been far from their convincing selves lately; consecutive draws in the league were followed up by an underwhelming 1-0 win over Real Valladolid at the weekend.
In the aftermath, Barca manager Ernesto Valverde visibly bristled at criticism of his side’s style as merely functional and lacking the usual pizzazz.
There is also the mental bugbear of last season, when Roma stunned the Catalans and overturned a 4-1 first leg deficit in Rome. That is a poltergeist that stands to be exorcised, further increasing the pressure on Barcelona.
By contrast, Lyon will have serenity.
Not only are they firm underdogs, but they have, in Bruno Genesio, a manager who has shown himself to be excellent at finding specific tactical solutions to different opponents.
Indeed, he relishes this challenge, although it can be a double-edged sword: under him, Lyon are actively a threat in big games, but his intense focus on the opposition can hinder his own side’s consistency.
The result is that they tend to play up or down to the opposition; a concern over the course of a league season, but a great quality to have in the Champions League.
Witness: the French side come into this tie unbeaten so far in the competition, and that in a group that included Manchester City. That is quite the achievement.
Handily, they also have in store the electrifying Maxwel Cornet, who has been used sparingly this term, but with devastating effect in the Champions League.
There is a rather odd distribution to the Ivorian’s minutes this season: he has started only four league games so far, and has just the one goal to show for his total 16 appearances.
However, in the Champions League he has shone, scoring three times in only two starts; incidentally, both against City.
Lyon’s shock victory on Matchday One saw him unman Pep Guardiola’s side with blistering pace, as the away side dutifully pressured Fernandinho, before immediately bursting past him and running at their hosts’ exposed defence.
It was a lesson, and the first sign of weakness for the reigning English champions.
Cornet would play only nine minutes over the following four matchdays, before being wheeled out for the return leg at Stade de Lyon. It was a different City system, but Genesio was prepared just the same, and his master plan once again involved the 22-year-old.
Much as it had in the reverse fixture, it paid off handsomely: this time, Cornet struck twice in a 2-2 draw which somewhat flattered City.
The first, a fantastic curler from the edge of the box, was the pick of the bunch, while for the second he burst through the visitors’ defence to latch onto a through ball and finish calmly.
It would appear, on this evidence, that the Ivory Coast international will be key to whatever Genesio devises on Tuesday night.
Of course, it is a much different test—City did not have the singular talent of Lionel Messi, for one thing, who could lay waste to even the best laid plans with a single run.
Cornet himself acknowledged this, admitting Lyon would need to “block Messi” to get anything out of the game. It is not the most novel idea in the world, of course, and is easier said than done.
“We know that in this kind of match that you cannot waste chances, so it will be up to us to be effective in front of their goal,” he also told Goal. This really is where his eye for goal in the competition so far will come in handy.
Simply put, if Lyon are to have any chance of pulling off another shock, they will need their man for the big occasion to step up once again.