It seems bizarre to refer to a team who have made the last sixteen of the Champions League twice, and the quarter finals three times in the last five years as “David” however, as Olympique Lyonnais hear the familiar strains of Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” on Tuesday night, they will certainly be playing diminutive adversary to Barcelona’s Goliath.
Barcelona, surprisingly only Champions of Europe twice, are undoubtedly the irresistible force in European football at the moment. Spain won UEFA’s 2008 European Championships, and the imposing Barca contingent in that side have continued to impress in this season’s primera liga where they have simply swept the opposition aside, averaging more than three goals a game, and winning 19 of 23 matches thus far.
But it is the style of those performances that has neutral and aficionado alike salivating at the mere thought of Henry, Eto’o, Bojan, and Xavi picking locks in the most steadfast of defences. Coped with that thought?
Enter Lionel Messi. Whilst Ronaldo and Kaka certainly make fair claim to the mantle of best player on Earth, there is no greater entertainer than the tiny Argentinean. Joint top scorer in the groups, with five goals, the feat is all the more impressive since he was rested regularly, a ploy Guardiola has also deployed in La Liga, averaging over 1.5 goals per 90 minutes played.
Their progress in this season’s competition was little more than perfunctory. Scoring 5 in Basle and Lisbon were highlights, but their only defeat, at home to Shakhtar Donetsk, came after the team had cruised through. Their 18 goals in six games maintained their season’s average of three a game.
Slightly more concerning for coach Pep Guardiola though will be that of all the last 16 qualifiers, only one team conceded more group stage goals. Any guesses?
So to Lyon, the team with the worst defensive group stage record of any of the last 16 qualifiers. Fear not, as despite some comic book defending, especially in the match of the tournament so far, their 5-3 victory against Steaua, in Bucharest, Lyon are the tournament’s second top scorers. Second, of course, to, their opponents.
It would be fair to assume this tie will not require penalty kicks after two dour 0-0 stalemates. Their form is less impressive this season, both in domestic and European action, than in the past few years; however they still sit atop Ligue 1, albeit with an unfamiliarly narrow margin of error, four points.
The team however are beginning to look like Elvis in the Las Vegas years. Yes, he’s still the king of rock and roll, but you begin to think it might be time for him to retire the jump suits gracefully. Lyon are still a very entertaining side to watch, but the crop who have served so well for a number of years are looking a little jaded.
They still have true class, but it does seem to be less in abundance. A decidedly average Bayern side topped their qualifying group, and at times Lyon looked like a team expiring in front of our eyes.
Distinctly less than average is Lyon’s headline grabbing, and quite possibly transfer grabbing, centre forward Karim Benzema. Topping the group stage goalscoring charts (there is a recurring theme here) with, amongst others, Lionel Messi, the 21 year old forward is French football’s wunderkind.
His average in the last couple of seasons has been considerably better than a goal every two games. It would be a brave man who would predict that record not being enhanced over the tie. Particularly with Barca’s “we’ll score more than you” philosophy.
Juninho, so long Lyons’ talisman, remains a perennial danger. Time however has finally caught up with the 34 year old and he has become more peripheral. Possibly the greatest free kick taker of all time though, Barca ought to be wary. This may be a swansong for the Brazilian.
So, the match. Barca will line up 4-3-3, Lyon probably 4-4-2 and both teams will play to attack, entertain, and play the neatest passing game you’ll ever witness. Puyol remains a huge loss for the Catalans, so anticipate even shakier defending with, presumably, Marquez and possibly Pique in the heart of defence.
Eto’o has been in rich form of late, and Henry and Messi will probably be reinstated. Lyon will play a choice of Fred, Keita, or Govou alongside Benzema. Both defences have been a cause for some concern. In truth, neither side can defend, so both will most likely simply play to attack.
This is unquestionably the tie of the tournament for lovers of attacking play, and it should be fantastic. The Catalans should progress and have been impressive on their travels, thus I’d predict an away win. And Barca to be crowned Champions of Europe in May.
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