Europa League Quarter-Final: Juventus vs Olympique Lyonnais Preview
Juve and Lyon are two of the strongest teams left in the competition and their quarter-final has all the makings of becoming the tie of the round.
Juve enter the Lyon game off the back of a hotly-contested round of 16 tie with Fiorentina. The Bianconeri came out on top 2-1 on aggregate after Andrea Pirlo's free kick won the second leg 1-0. OL had taken a commanding lead in their previous Europa League matchup against Viktoria Plzen before the Serbians scored two quick-fire goals to make things a bit more interesting. Despite this, the French team eased through 5-3.
What can be expected of this matchup? Will Juve continue to march towards a home final, or will OL pull an upset and knock the Italians out?
Let's take a closer look at the two legs of the tie to see which of these two powers will progress.
Tale of the Tape
|I Bianconeri||Nickname||Les Gones|
|1 (78)||League Position (points)||5 (48)|
|25-3-1||League Record (W-D-L)||13-9-8|
UCL: 2 (Last 1995-96)
UEFA Cup: 3 (Last 1992-93)
0 (Best result:
2009-10 UCL Semifinal)
|Last 5 Matches***|
*Number of titles officially recognized by FIGC—two titles in dispute.
**Counts Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League only, not Cup Winners' Cup or Intertoto Cup.
The Bianconeri are far from locks to win the Europa League, but it would be fair to call them the favorites.
The biggest factor in classifying them as such is their league position. Juve are 14 points ahead of second place Roma in Serie A, leaving them practically home and dry for the title with eight games remaining.
That leaves Antonio Conte free to rotate his squad in the league and use his best XI to concentrate on claiming the Europa League trophy.
The struggles of Bianconeri in Europe under Conte have been well documented, especially this year. Missed opportunities against Copenhagen and Galatasaray allowed the Turkish side to pip them for second in controversial circumstances. After snow and hail forced a suspension of their final group tie half an hour in, the game was restarted the next day on a blasted pitch that was unfit for play. Juve couldn't play their game, and Gala's late goal sealed their fate.
Most of Conte's European struggles come down to formation and tactics. The 3-5-2 that Conte has dominated Italy with since the middle of the 2011-12 season has been exposed in European play, particularly against teams with good wingers such as Bayern.
Conte experimented with a 4-3-3 in the two matches against Real Madrid in the Champions League, but he still lacks the personnel to deploy such a formation effectively on a regular basis, so the 3-5-2 keeps appearing on the European fields. Juve were able to throttle Trabzonspor and beat Fiorentina—and their fans are hoping it can hold up until the final at the Juventus Stadium.
Lyon topped Ligue 1 for the first two weeks of the season, then went on a disastrous run that saw them win just three of their next 14 games and drop as low as 14th.
Things have been looking up, though. In the 15 league contests since a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain on the first day of December, they have won eight, drawn five and lost just twice, pulling them up to fifth in the standings.
In Europe, Les Gones were unceremoniously dumped from the Champions League in the play-off round by Real Sociedad. They drew three of their first four group games in the Europa League, but scored an important 1-0 victory over Real Betis in the fifth round and topped the group with an undefeated record. They slipped past the round of 32 tie against Chornomorets Odessa thanks to an Alexandre Lacazette strike in the 80th minute of the second leg, which proved the only goal either team could manage over 180 minutes. They then made quick work of Viktoria Plzen to set up their quarter-final matchup with Juve.
Lyon have already guaranteed a spot in some European competition next year, having made the final in the Coupe de la Ligue, where they will face PSG—mortal locks for the Champions League. That means the competition's Europa League place would go to Lyon—even if they lose. But that's not the prize they're after.
With eight games left in the season, the seven-time Ligue 1 champions still have an outside shot at making the Champions League. To get there, they'll need to bridge a six-point gap and leapfrog a pair of teams. Still, after missing out on the Champions League proper this year, they will be keen on making it again, and are therefore less at liberty than Juve to rest some key players in the league and focus on sending their best unit out on Thursday.
How hard they push to make third place could be the difference in this tie.
Key Players: Juventus
Juve's second vice-captain has been forced out of the regular starting XI by Paul Pogba, but he's going to play a critical role in this tie.
Arturo Vidal—the team's best player—will be suspended for the first leg for yellow-card accumulation, and Marchisio will be relied on to replace him. After two weeks out with a leg injury, he came off the bench to replace Andrea Pirlo against Parma on Wednesday and should be fit to start on Thursday.
No one in the world can match Vidal's elite combination of skills, but Marchisio is one of the best contingency plans imaginable. His presence will also allow Conte the option to rotate his central midfielders in the second leg if the need arises—or if Juve manages to pull away convincingly in the first leg of the tie.
With Andrea Barzagli's return date from injury still unknown, Juve's captain is going to be a key in keeping Juve's defence organised.
Buffon's skill in wrangling his back line is one of the things that makes him one of, if not the greatest goalkeeper of all time. Without Barzagli in the back, Juve's back three have a slightly worrying tendency to lose track of each other—exemplified by Mario Gomez's equalizing goal in the first leg against Fiorentina. Buffon will be tasked with minimising those occurrences and minimizing the potential damage if they do fall out of line.
Tevez has played extremely well in the Europa games he has taken part in, but his goal drought in European competition continues.
He hasn't scored a European goal since the 2008-09 season, but he's in red-hot form at present, having scored three times in his last two matches. His Wednesday brace against Parma both came from superb individual dribbling runs that show just how high his confidence is at the moment.
Rest is a huge factor for him in this tie. Earlier this month, he was forced to sit and recharge his batteries due to a minor injury. He's also suspended for Juve's Sunday tilt with Napoli due to yellow card accumulation. He'll be coming into the first leg in France on eight days rest—and primed for a huge performance. If he has a big day on Thursday it could decide the tie early.
Key Players: Lyon
The Lyon captain was consistently mentioned in the transfer rumor mill this winter, but as reported by several media outlets—including ESPNFC's Ian Holyman—team president Jean-Michel Aulas rejected several approaches from Serie A contender Napoli to keep the midfielder with the team.
WhoScored.com rates Gonalons as Lyon's third-best player in Europa League play this year. He has started six times and scored once in group play. He skipped the round of 32 tie against Odessa but played both games against Viktoria Plzen, providing a few dangerous key passes in the first leg.
The leader in the OL locker room, Gonalons will be tasked with helping contain Juve's magnificent midfield. It will be his job to not only stop attacking midfielders Marchisio and Paul Pogba—and Vidal when he reappears in the second leg—but to try to trigger Lyon's own attack when he can relieve the pressure that will undoubtedly come.
The 21-year-old Zeffane, who last played against Odessa in February, could be a key in OL's defence in this tie. Likely the leading candidate to replace first-choice right-back Miguel Lopes, who broke his leg against Guingamp at the weekend, Zeffane—if chosen—will be given with the daunting task of facing down Kwadwo Asamoah on Juve's left. The Ghanaian has been in the form of his life over the last two months, and if Zeffane can't keep him in check life could be made very difficult for Lyon.
He has acquitted himself well in the few games he's played this year—WhoScored averages put him at 3.5 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per game in the league this year—but he is about to take a step into the big leagues if he plays in the next two weeks. How he will respond could determine whether Lyon moves on in the competition.
Lyon's top scorer this season with 15 goals in all competitions, how Lacazette fairs against the likes of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini will be critical.
Juve have conceded just one goal in their four Europa League matches this year, but they haven't played against forwards quite on Lacazette's level. Trabzonspor's forwards aren't near as good, and while Fiorentina does have Mario Gomez, he wasn't yet at full form after a long injury layoff.
It will be up to Lacazette to pierce through the back three—a unit composed of three international starters for two countries—and find a way to beat Buffon. If Juve can shut him down and force his teammates to find goals, OL's side of the aggregate could be very lean indeed.
As mentioned previously, Conte has been forced by the personnel at his disposal to continue to use his 3-5-2 formation, which is not ideal for European competition but has proven adequate so far in the Europa League.
His biggest challenge right now is how to give his important players some rest. That's a tough ask right now, with Juve's injury situation giving him few alternatives.
Claudio Marchisio just spent two weeks out with an injury. That injury strained the centre midfielders almost to the breaking point and forced Conte to use Simone Padoin in the centre of midfield in the stead of a suspended Paul Pogba in last week's game against Catania.
Depth in the back three—thought a strength coming into the season—has also been severely compromised. Angelo Ogbonna, Federico Peluso and the all-important Andrea Barzagli are all unavailable, leaving Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Martin Caceres the only fit centre-backs available to him. He has used Arturo Vidal there in the past—including this season—but with injuries and suspensions making the midfield so thin that's not a viable option right now. Peluso's injury is a double-whammy because it also leaves Kwadwo Asamoah without any cover in the back.
Sky Sports quoted him after Wednesday's win over Parma as saying, "I'm running out of words of praise for these lads, eight out of 11 are on their fifth consecutive game."
One area he is able to rotate will be the forward line. Carlos Tevez will be rested due to his suspension against Napoli but Fernando Llorente has been on a bad run of form and looks like he needs an extended break. Expect Tevez and Dani Osvaldo to partner up in the first leg.
A former Lyon player who won the Ligue 2 title with the team in 1988-89, Garde has been the manager at OL since 2011 and led the club to the 2011-12 Coupe de France.
His go-to formation is a 4-1-2-1-2, with the midfield anchored by Gonalons deep and Clement Grenier in the hole behind the strikers.
His biggest strategic decisions will be just who to start and who to sit as he eyes both the Europa League and the prospect—however faint—of qualifying for the Champions League next year.
Picking the right replacement for Miguel Lopes at right back is another major decision going into the tie.
With Lyon relatively new to top-level European soccer, these two teams have never played each other before.
Conversely, Juventus has played nine such ties against French competition and haven't lost one.
Juve's overall match record against French competition (W-D-L) is 11-4-5 with a +17 goal difference. OL is 7-4-5 overall against Italian competition with a -1 goal difference.
Key Matchup 1
Andrea Pirlo vs. Maxime Gonalons
Simply put, the winner of this matchup determines the result of the tie.
Andrea Pirlo can flat-out dominate any team if he is given enough room to operate. His pinpoint passes and extraordinary vision can unzip any defense.
There are two major ways to prevent him from taking such liberties with a back line. The first is to press him relentlessly and not allow him the time and space to work his magic. The second is to keep hold of the ball yourself, thereby denying Pirlo his most important tool.
If Gonalons can establish himself in the midfield and start dictating to Juve's defence it will lessen the pressure Pirlo can bring. He may have the chance to do just that, especially in the first leg, with Arturo Vidal out.
Juve may even let him. The team's injury problems have seen Antonio Conte's team play more defensively and on the counter of late in order to save their legs. In that scenario, Pirlo can be just as dangerous—one long ball can be the key pass that gives Juve the goal they need.
As for Pirlo, he must rely on Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio to keep OL's midfield off of him. The rest of the team has enough quality to make quick work of OL if he can operate at full power.
Les Gones also need to be very aware of conceding fouls close to the box. Any free kick from 18-25 yards could be potentially deadly, as Pirlo has proven against Genoa and Fiorentina in recent weeks.
Key Matchup 2
Alexandre Lacazette vs. Giorgio Chiellini
Lacazette is the most dangerous weapon Lyon's attack has. Much of whether OL can score depends on how well he does getting through Juve's back three.
That back three is led by vice-captain Giorgio Chiellini. The big defender has tamed the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gonzalo Higuain and Miroslav Klose during his illustrious career. A player like Lacazette seems like child's play.
The great equalizer in this matchup is how much Chiellini has had to play recently due to the injuries to his team-mates. If Lacazette, who is fresher by contrast, finds he can run around a winded Chiellini, Gigi Buffon will be in for some interesting moments.
Key Matchup 3
Carlos Tevez vs. Milan Bisevac
Carlos Tevez is going to be fresh following his Serie A suspension on Sunday and will be looking to wipe away his six-season goal drought in European competition. He's scored three times in his last two outings and that freight train of form is heading straight at a Lyon defence anchored by the 30-year-old Bisevac.
The Serbian has played 30 games between France and Europe this year and was WhoScored's man of the match in the second leg of the round of 16 tie against Plzen. He's not a volume tackler, preferring to defend using position rather than force. But he has played well and anchored OL's defense for much of the year.
As well as Bisevac has played, when Tevez is in the kind of form he is at present it is difficult for even the world's best defenders to stop him. Bisevac will have his hands full. If he can blunt the onslaught from El Apache, Lyon stand a much better chance of winning this tie.
There is no question as to which of these teams is the strongest on paper. If you were to simulate this tie on FIFA 14, odds are Juve would win.
The fatigue forced on Juve by the injury crisis they're going through could be an equalizer in this tie. Juve may play a more stereotypical Italian game in the first leg at the Stade de Gerland—defending and looking for quick counters—before going for broke in the return fixture.
Regardless of fatigue, Juve should have this tie, even though the injury situation is going to make it more difficult that it ought to be.
I predict that Juve will grind out a 1-1 draw in France and then take command of the second leg early at the Juventus Stadium and notch a 2-0 win.
Juve head to the semis, 3-1 on aggregate.