France's Champions League hopes suddenly brighten after Lyon join PSG

Paul Doyle on 8 August 2020

If Euro 2020 had not been postponed, then as world champions France would have fancied their chances of embellishing the country’s roll of honour this summer. But when it transpired the only competitions to take place would be the Champions League and Europa League, hopes of French glory faded.

Only once has a French club lifted one of Europe’s top two competitions and that victory was tainted, as Marseille’s 1993 Champions League triumph came in the year they were stripped of their domestic title for match-fixing. This year, by contrast, events in France were thought to have weakened their clubs’ chances on the continent, but suddenly their outlook has brightened after Lyon’s surprising elimination of Juventus on Friday.

Lyon’s president, Jean-Michel Aulas, was one of the angriest critics of the decision in April that Ligue 1 would become the only top-five European league to be terminated owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. He even went to court in an attempt to overturn what he declared to be a hasty ruling that would damage French clubs in financial and sporting terms. But thanks to his team’s victory over the Italian champions and Paris Saint-Germain’s defeat in March of Borussia Dortmund, no country has more clubs than France in the Champions League quarter-finals the fourth time it has had two clubs in the last eight.

That does not mean that Aulas’s prophecy of doom was unfounded – the financial impact of the lockdown will take longer to strike – but Lyon’s win did at least suggest that being deprived of competitive action for longer than anyone else has not torpedoed France’s chances this season. If Lyon could overcome Juve in their second proper match for five months, then maybe they and PSG are in better shape than suspected.

Lyon’s goalkeeper Anthony Lopes celebrates after the Champions League last-16 second leg against Juventus
Lyon’s goalkeeper Anthony Lopes celebrates after the Champions League last-16 second leg against Juventus. Photograph: Antonio Calanni/AP

PSG were Lyon’s opponents in their only other competitive match since the early end to their league campaign: that was the French League Cup final on the last day in July that, after being allowed to go ahead, served up a spectacle with all the entertainment value of a traffic jam. But in the gruelling 0-0 draw, which PSG won in a shootout, Lyon showed the defiant spirit and defensive rigour that enabled them to prevail against Juventus and could make them tricky opponents for Manchester City next Saturday.

It would still be a shock if City were dumped out by Lyon. This is not the same Lyon side that beat City in the group stages two years ago. Before the start of this season they lost several of their best players: Tanguy Ndombele became Tottenham’s record signing, Ferland Mendy went to Real Madrid and Nabil Fekir joined Real Betis. Lyon were in seventh when Ligue 1 was called to a halt, finishing outside their league’s European places for the first time since 1997.

But they were improving and might have surged upwards had Ligue 1 continued. The style of Rudi Garcia, appointed manager in October, has increasingly found favour, the veteran centre-back Marcelo has taken charge of a defence featuring the former City player Jason Denayer, and the club’s exceptional capacity to regenerate has begun to bear fruit again: no one has been pining for Ndombele, say, since the emergence of the homegrown 20-year-old Maxence Caqueret, who confirmed against Juve he is a midfielder of immense promise. The former Manchester United forward Memphis Depay has grown into an inspirational menace who will relish punishing any lapses by City defenders.

While Lyon remain a long shot to topple City, PSG will face ridicule if they do not advance. The club’s raison d’être since being taken over by the rulers of Qatar nearly a decade ago has been to conquer Europe, but they have yet to reach a semi-final. Now the obstacle between them and the last four is a club competing in the tournament for the first time. Atalanta are dangerous, an effervescent attacking side who can produce enough goals to offset defensive flaws, finishing as Serie A’s top scorers with 98, in third place. Even if PSG are not too hamstrung by their relative lack of competitive action, they are depleted by injuries.

PSG’s Juan Bernat celebrates with teammates after scoring the critical goal in March’s last-16 second leg against Borussia Dortmund
PSG’s Juan Bernat (second right) celebrates with teammates after scoring the critical goal in March’s last-16 second leg against Borussia Dortmund. Photograph: AP

Most worryingly, Kylian Mbappé is almost certain to miss the quarter-final, with his manager, Thomas Tuchel, saying “it will take a miracle” for the phenomenal forward to recover from a damaged ankle in time for Wednesday. The influential midfielder Marco Verratti is also a doubt. The left-back Laywin Kurzawa will definitely miss out but is likely to be replaced by Juan Bernat, who scored the decisive goal in PSG’s victory over Dortmund in the last round.

That was a landmark tie for PSG because their win owed a lot to qualities that they previously could not muster: discipline, resolve and true cohesion. Verratti missed the second leg of that tie while Mbappé featured in it only as a substitute. Neymar, meanwhile, was excellent, combining his wonderful skills with an admirable collective ethic. More of the same and this could be PSG’s year at last.

Bayern Munich, however, look to be the most likely winners. They could meet City in the semi-finals while PSG, if they overcome Atalanta, will face Atlético Madrid or RB Leipzig.

While the Champions League is played out in Portugal, Germany will host the last-eight of the Europa League. This, too, will serve up enticing fixtures, not least Wolves’ showdown on Tuesday with Sevilla, who are back in the quarter-finals for the first time since winning the tournament three times in a row between 2014 and 2016. If Wolves overcome fatigue and high-calibre opponents, they will face a semi-final against Manchester United unless they are humiliated on Monday by Copenhagen.

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