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Will resurgent Toko Ekambi turn it on against unrecognisable Juventus?

11:49 EAT 26/02/2020
Karl Toko-Ekambi Lyon 2019-20
The Villarreal loanee has got off to a good start at Olympique Lyonnais, now he has to prove his worth against the Old Lady

It’s been a quick turnaround for Karl Toko Ekambi since he endured a nightmarish 10-minute cameo in Villarreal’s 1-0 win over Getafe in December: the Cameroon star replaced Samuel Chukwueze with 10 minutes remaining, but missed two big chances and hit the woodwork in that short period against a top four rival.

Those misses weren’t earth shattering for the Yellow Submarine as they held on against Jose Bordalas’ troops for the win, but it was too often the case of Toko Ekambi’s time in Villarreal, especially this season....big chances going missing.

The forward scored 10 times in 34 appearances – 24 were starts – which isn’t a bad return for a striker considered a rotational option up front. However, he missed 10 presentable opportunities in his maiden campaign in Spain, and his finishing had begun to be called into question.

In 18 appearances in La Liga, the attacker missed 10 big chances, a statistic even more staggering when you consider that he only started 11 of those games. He left the Spanish top flight in January but is still ranked joint-fifth in the list of profligate finishers in the division.

However, contrastingly, the Cameroon international’s scoring frequency of a goal every 166 minutes is the ninth-best in the division, a figure which implies that while being wasteful in front of goal, he scores his fair share as well.

Back in France with Olympique Lyonnais, the frontman has been successful early doors and has netted twice and set up one in six games. His contributions have come in four starts, too, which indicates just how well he’s played since returning to Ligue 1.

Having never replicated his 17-goal season (in 2017/18) at Angers in Spain, Toko Ekambi has looked reborn upon his return to the French top flight, and he’s been so good that he hasn’t even missed any presentable opportunities…yet.

In a sense, that’s a good sign heading into Wednesday’s clash with Juventus at the Groupama Stadium. On first glance, the Old Lady are resounding favourites before this Round of 16 tie, after all they have the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo, who comes alive in the competition’s knockout rounds.

But is it that straightforward?

Admittedly, Lyon aren’t pulling up trees domestically – Friday’s 2-0 win over Metz was their first success in five – but neither are Maurizio Sarri’s men.

The Bianconeri are top in Serie A but it hasn’t told the full story of their season. Sarri was brought in to replace Massimiliano Allegri in the summer, to give the side from Turin an attacking identity whilst improving the style at the Juventus Stadium.

Eight months down the line, though, the 61-year-old’s side look nothing like a team managed by the former Chelsea trainer: they are turgid in possession, fail to create quality chances with any regularity, concede opportunities at the other end and have had to rely on individual performances by Ronaldo and Dybala to bail them out time and again.

Allegri’s team were often accused of being boring to watch given they prioritised winning at all costs, but Sarri’s version seems to have lost that ability to grind out games while not playing well.

The Neapolitan favours a possession-based style, but wants constant forward passes (vertical tiki-taka, as the coach’s style is commonly called) but many of the Old Lady’s games have seen them resort to slow, sterile sideways passing.

Things aren’t looking any better defensively either, with Sarri’s team’s inclination to keep the ball still not preventing opponents from threatening their rearguard intermittently, which defeats the purpose of their possession football as it’s meant to serve as a defensive solution too.

They are out-performing their Expected Points by 13 points, which is by far the highest in the Italian top flight. Their metric isn’t surprising either as they’ve lost the Expected Goals battle in seven of 25 league fixtures this term.

Indeed, fans of the club are starting to vent their frustration at the side which looks nothing like Sarri’s or his predecessor’s, thus suffering an identity crisis.

It’s why a resurgent Toko Ekambi and his teammates will fancy their chances of causing an upset over two legs, and why Wednesday night’s first encounter may not be as straightforward as it looks.

Lyon’s in-form Cameroon star has thrived upon his return to France, now Rudi Garcia will hope the Villarreal loanee will carry that form into Europe’s premier club competition against a team that may be resounding favourites on paper but have been far from their best this season and seem to be suffering an identity crisis on the pitch.