Watch out Paris Saint-Germain: in-form Olympique Lyonnais are ready to make a long overdue return to the summit of the French game, warns Ligue1.com’s Matthew Spiro.
It has been a difficult year on so many levels, but as a budding Ligue 1 enthusiast I have found events on the pitch extremely heartening over these final weeks of 2020. The emergence of Lyon, Lille and perhaps even Marseille as genuine rivals to PSG’s domestic hegemony has brought a wave of excitement and intrigue that is more than welcome after three years of Parisian domination. We have a serious title race on our hands and 2021 promises be to be thrilling!
Lyon’s rise, in particular, feels like an event that will significantly alter the Ligue 1 landscape. This is a club that has the history, fan-base, infrastructure, financial clout and quality to compete for major honours year in year out. In fact, OL should be competing with PSG. Finishing 29 points adrift of the champions, as they did in 2018/19, or languishing 28 points behind at the end of the curtailed 2019/20 campaign is simply not acceptable for this traditional giant. The club’s current form – they have taken 26 points from the last 30 on offer – has propelled them into the heart of this season’s title race, and it feels like the start of something big, something long-standing.
As an Englishman who first moved to France to work on Ligue 1 in 2002, I spent many of my early years reporting on ‘Le Grand l’OL’ – the Lyon side that trampled all over the French game, winning seven consecutive league titles with a swagger and a style that rendered its opponents helpless and scared stiff. Witnessing first-hand the warmth and class of this football club on so many famous nights at Stade de Gerland – the thrilling Champions League clashes with Real Madrid, Werder Bremen, Manchester United or Barcelona shine brightest in my mind – was a genuine privilege and ensured that Lyon will always have a dear place in my football memory bank.
WATCH: Lyon end 2020 on a high against Nantes
But just as the Juninho years were magic, the ensuing seasons of underachievement have been deeply frustrating. Lyon have just one Coupe de France trophy to show for their last 12 years of toils; that’s not good enough. Nor is finishing seventh and failing to qualify for Europe acceptable.
The first signs that Lyon were on their way back arrived during the Final Eight in Lisbon when Rudi Garcia’s men eliminated Juventus and Manchester City on their way to the Champions League semi-finals. ‘Those performances helped us understand the level that we’re capable of playing at,’ midfielder Houssem Aouar told when I interviewed him a fortnight. Indeed, if Lyon can defend so well and attack so ruthlessly against two European superpowers, they can surely string together a run of wins in Ligue 1? The penny seems to have dropped.
Unsettled by the extended transfer window, and handicapped by the lack of a pre-season, Lyon made a stuttering start this term. They were reportedly ready to cash in on Memphis Depay during the summer, and possibly Aouar or Moussa Dembélé too, yet the financial crisis across Europe meant that those players ended up staying. Since the window closed in October, Lyon have been imperial. Their newfound belief and maturity was clearly on display at the Parc des Princes earlier this month, as the visitors registered a solid, professional 1-0 win over PSG thanks to Tino Kadewere’s goal. The unfussy, no-frills nature of the performance, and the relatively low-key celebrations at the final whistle, suggested to me that this was no freak result and that Lyon aren’t going to stop here.
Rudi Garcia deserves credit, of course, but so too do Bruno Cheyrou and his recruitment team. Lucas Paqueta has been a brilliant signing in midfield, adding even more quality to an area that already had Bruno Guimaraes, Aouar, Maxence Caqueret and Thiago Mendes. If the others are all technical and good at moving the ball quickly, Paqueta brings penetration through his dribbles and the ability to pass cleverly through the lines. I wouldn’t swap Lyon’s midfield for PSG’s right now.
In attack, Kaderwere – the Zimbabwean striker who finished as top scorer in Ligue 2 with Le Havre last year – had adapted seamlessly to life in the top tier. Garcia made the tough decision to drop Dembélé, who has never quite clicked with the club captain Depay, and Lyon now possess an attacking trio that looks as complementary as it is efficient: Karl Toko Ekambi brings the speed, Kadewere the hard running and physical presence, Depay the skill, power and sheer class. Kylian Mbappé and Neymar may still be considered as Ligue 1’s two leading lights, but Lyon’s Dutch master is not far behind and arguably exerts even more influence on his team’s performances.
Lyon can push PSG all the way this season – no question. So too can Lille, who have pieced together a strong squad and, in Christophe Galtier, possess the best manager in the division. The champions will need to raise their game if they are to clinch a fourth straight title. That in itself is good news for French football. But the fact that Lyon are flourishing once again could be the best news of all.