This week’s Champions League qualifiers have thrown up some intriguing ties, and one that promises to be worth watching is the clash between Olympique Lyonnais and Real Sociedad de Futbol S.A.D. The French side welcome their La Liga rivals to the Stade Gerland on Tuesday before making the return trip to San Sebastian one week later.
The Txuri-urdin are making their first appearance at Europe’s top footballing table in a decade after massively overachieving under French coach Philippe Montanier, who is now a Championnat rival of Lyon’s with Stade Rennais F.C., last season.
For Lyon, though, the competition has become something of an annual frustration, given the sides’ relatively rich pedigree on the continent, but recent disappointing performances.
OL will be relieved, from a financial point of view at least, to have a chance to return to the Champions League after spending last season in the Europa League. It will also act as an incentive for Sociedad, though, who were unable to tempt Montanier into staying at the club, to be able to attract more players and possibly keep a number of current stars at the club.
Both teams come into Tuesday’s game in form. Lyon have started the Ligue 1 season surprisingly well and have shaken off preseason pessimism, so far, and played some vibrant, entertaining football that has reminded people of the sort of quality that their star players are capable of producing.
La Real opened their domestic campaign with a 2-0 home win over Getafe and looked comfortable in doing so. Despite Montanier’s departure, the team is more or less the same one that qualified for Europe last season with the obvious exception of Asier Illarramendi who has joined Real Madrid.
The loan signing of Esteban Granero from Queens Park Rangers fills the void left by the 23-year-old to an extent, but the Spanish youth international is a difficult player to replace. The addition of Swiss international Haris Seferovic also looks to be intelligent business, easing the goal-scoring burden on a reinvigorated Carlos Vela for a small price.
So the Basques look well set for a swipe at the group stages, but the same would not have been said of Lyon prior to the start of the Ligue 1 season.
Remi Garde’s side have lost the likes of Lisandro Lopez, Dejan Lovren and Anthony Reveillere from the first team and Michel Bastos, Anthony Martial and Luciano Fabian Monzon from the fringes. Coming in have been the likes of Gael Danic, Miguel Lopes and Henri Bedimo, not poor signings exactly, but also not arrivals of the calibre Les Gones’ fans are accustomed to.
However, part of the surprise factor currently surrounding Lyon is that two previously existing members of the squad, who have started the season strongly, are like new signings in themselves. Yoann Gourcuff, the forgotten man of French football, and Alexandre Lacazette, a talented, but inconsistent, young striker, have both hit red-hot form immediately.
Added to the solid core of excellent young domestic talent at the club in Maxime Gonalons, Clement Grenier, Samuel Umtiti and Gueida Fofana, those two make Lyon a totally different side to the one that everyone was envisaging preseason.
Of course, the squad is not perfect, far from it; for a start, there are some serious depth issues. But OL currently boast some extremely gifted French talent, and with Gourcuff on song, they have potentially one of the best playmakers in Europe on their books.
Aside from PSV Eindhoven vs. AC Milan and Arsenal vs. Fenerbahce, it is arguably the most exciting encounter of the round. One of the aspects that makes it so enticing is some of the youngsters on display, not just on Lyon’s side, but also in the Sociedad ranks with the likes of Inigo Martinez and Ruben Pardo.
But one French talent in particular will be paid plenty of attention in this match, and he does not play for the Ligue 1 side.
Antoine Griezmann has enjoyed a rapid rise to prominence in the past two years as the Basque side dragged themselves back into the Spanish top-flight. Well-regarded in France, the 22-year-old is thought of as a future French international star and will likely continue to be a key player for new coach Jagoba Arrasate despite Montanier’s departure.
The versatile, fleet-footed wide man will be the man whom Lyon need to keep an eye on, and it will be intriguing to see how he handles himself against a French side, something, no doubt, a number of other Ligue 1 clubs are curious to know, too.
The importance of Lyon qualifying financially is arguably greater than Sociedad’s, having just sold Illarramendi, but the need to help France boost a flagging UEFA coefficient ranking is a more pressing reason why Garde’s side cannot afford to exit the competition at this stage.
While France’s continental showings had steadily worsened until Paris Saint-Germain’s quarterfinal appearance last year, much of the ire for that was directed at Lyon who are seen to have made some soft exits in the past few years.
Now more than ever, Lyon need to be playing in the Champions League proper, and France needs them there, too. But the novelty of a first European outing in 10 years for Sociedad cannot be underestimated.
It promises to be an exciting match!