Neymar Jr Maxence Caqueret OL PSG Lyon Paris Coupe de la Ligue BKT
Opinion

LE SPIRO: French duo ready to mix with Europe's finest

Publish on 11/08/2020 at 12:00 - M. SPIRO

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With two Ligue 1 clubs competing in the Final 8, an excited Matthew Spiro believes France's long-standing wait for Champions League glory could be about to end.

And what if this were it? What if this were the year? The year France finally showed the world what it is capable of by stamping its mark on Europe's elite club competition? What if Neymar showcased his immense talent on biggest stage for PSG at last? Hell, what if Lyon - at the end of their worst league season for over two decades - had the final laugh?

A most unusual year...

When I first started reporting on French football, in 2003-04, I thought I'd arrived at the start of a golden age. I reveled in the mayhem at the Stade Vélodrome as Didier Drogba fired Olympique de Marseille to the UEFA Cup final. I looked on in amazement as plucky AS Monaco put eight past Deportivo La Coruna and then disposed of Real Madrid and Chelsea to reach the Champions League showpiece. Yet unfortunately, over the last sixteen years, my relationship with the French club game hasn't returned to those dizzy heights.

But there is something about the madness of this long and difficult season that makes me think unexpected things are about to happen in French football again. For the first time in five years, and only the fourth time since the tournament's current format was introduced in 2003, Ligue 1 has two representatives in the Champions League quarter-finals. Not only are PSG and Lyon very much in the mix, their chances of overall victory have been enhanced by the unique circumstances of the upcoming showdown in Lisbon.

Fortuitous format

In recent years, PSG's inability to combine two strong performances has led to their downfall. Against Barcelona in 2017, they won 4-0 at home, only to collapse at the Nou Camp. Last season, Thomas Tuchel's charges were brilliant in the 2-0 win at Old Trafford, yet somehow they failed to get the job done at home. Even this term, Paris only managed to perform in one of their two legs against Borussia Dortmund, but thankfully they escaped from Germany with a rather fortuitous 2-1 defeat and their chances still intact.

Neymar goal

Lyon, meanwhile, surely have a better chance of prevailing in a one-off game. In their two competitive outings since the restart - against PSG in the Coupe de la Ligue final and against Juventus - Rudi Garcia's side have played in a resolute, defensive fashion and tried to hurt their expensively assembled opponents on the counterattack. This tactic has a much greater chance of paying off in one 90-minute contest than over two legs.

Tousart goal

There is one other important reason to believe this might be France's turn: of the eight teams left in the competition, only two (Barcelona and Bayern Munich) have previous experience of winning the Champions League. And they are playing against one another. In other words, there is a very strong chance there will be a new winner this year. So why shouldn't that new winner be PSG or Lyon? Both have a genuine chance of emulating Marseille, Champions League winners in 1993 - and this in itself is very exciting.

OL: Nothing to envy City in Europe

For too long, French clubs have approached big games with an inferiority complex. This time, there is no need to feel second best. Lyon have just become the first French club ever to eliminate Juventus from Europe. Furthermore, they should take confidence from the fact they possess greater European pedigree than their opponents Manchester City. The Rhône Valley club are hoping to qualify for Europe for a 24th consecutive season. When they started that run back in 1997, City were busy being relegated to England's third division.

Of course, the modern-day City is a different animal, but Lyon got the better of Pep Guardiola's Premier League title-winners in 2018-19, claiming a 2-1 Champions League group stage win at the Etihad and drawing 2-2 at home. So why shouldn't they do it this season when City are more vulnerable defensively, and OL's big players like Memphis Depay, Houssem Aouar and Moussa Dembélé are more mature?

Karl Toko-Ekambi

High standards

There is little doubt Rudi Garcia will stick to the formula that helped Lyon qualify in Turin. That means operating in a 5-3-2, playing deep and trying to render City's tiki-taka inoffensive. The three centre-halves will have to be faultless, wing-backs Maxwel Cornet and Léo Dubois need to produce high-energy displays, and the midfield three of Bruno Guimaraes, Houssem Aouar and Maxence Caqueret must combine relentless running with poise in possession. Caqueret, the 20-year-old youth graduate, did that brilliantly against Juventus and has set the standards for his more experienced colleagues to follow.

Crucially, in attack, Garcia has some good options. If Depay looks certain to start, the skipper could be partnered by the pacy Karl Toko-Ekambi, the deadly Dembélé or the languid, skilful Jeff Reine-Adelaïde, who made a very impressive return from injury as a substitute in Turin.

Neymar to lead the charge

For their part, PSG know this is the ideal opportunity to break the European hoodoo that has been plaguing them. The fiercely determined nature of their performance in the second against Borussia Dortmund, before the lockdown, hinted that a psychological corner had been turned. They coped with the pressure admirably, defending tigerishly as a team - Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho barely had a sniff - and attacking in numbers too.

Piszczek Neymar

Tellingly, Neymar appeared more motivated than anybody. The majestic Brazilian was signed three years ago to take PSG to Champions League glory. If he has failed until now, mainly because of injuries, the stage is now set for him to shine. Reports in the camp suggest he is happier than ever and feels totally committed to the club. The next two weeks - starting with the game against Atalanta on Wednesday night - will define Neymar's legacy at PSG and I, for one, am backing him to seize the moment.

Anything can happen

After five months of frustration and worry created by the COVID-19 pandemic, French football has returned, and it was wonderful to watch Lyon produce such a stirring, back-to-the-wall performance against Juventus last Friday. Like PSG, these boys are capable of mixing it with the best – and there are surely more thrills to come.