Lyon: Built to do damage to Barça

It has been a very long time since Barcelona traveled to Lyon to do anything except inquire about or sign a French talent.

The last Champions League outing was a 1-1 draw, Thierry Henry netting to answer a lustrous Juninho Olimpico. Back then, Lyon was a monster, the PSG of that era, when the only question was how much they were going to win Ligue 1 by. Then came petrodollars.

Lyon sits third in the table at present, within shouting distance of a surprising Lille, with PSG of course the runaway leaders. Lyon is also a confounding club (a lot like Barça), who can beat PSG then struggle to hold on to a draw against last-place — though far better than its record — Guingamp.

A great many culers are pretty smug about this tie. It’s worth reminding that a lot of people were smug about Manchester United’s chances against Paris St.-Germain, without Neymar and Cavani. Until a ball is kicked, predictions are only worth the paper they are printed on. Lyon is a dangerous, dangerous side.

This season in particular, Barça has been most susceptible to pace. Lyon has pace at every position. Even their CBs close fast. Jason Denayer is capable of running laps around Suarez. Marcelo Guedes will also be a handful. Both are also a real danger on set pieces also, as strong headers of the ball with springs in their boots.

Culers should breathe a sigh of relief that Nabil Fekir is suspended for the first leg. His combination with Tanguy N’Dombele is fearsome. Make no mistake, Lyon is punching below its weight, as defined by its league position. Like Barça, they play off the front foot, often with CBs and fullbacks pressed up. This is the luxury of pace.

Up front, Bertrand Traore is — yes — strong and pacy. He’s capable of playing off the shoulder of a defense, but also just flat-out leaving a centerback in the dust. He is capable of shotmaking skill and versatility, even if he is also capable of some Suarez-like clunkers. On his game, he’s a force that can dominate a match.

And then there is Ferland Mendy. Jordi Alba is, on form, if not the best left back in football, your mind strains to think of who might be as good. Mendy is near the bottom of that short list. This is a fullback that, because of astonishing pace, can play like a winger. He runs, dribbles, passes, lays in cross after cross for the likes of Traore and Memphis. He’s another player capable of turning a match on his own. We can only presume that Semedo didn’t play against Valladolid because he was watching Mendy video all weekend. This is going to be a fascinating matchup. The Barça right back, whoever that is, potentially holds the tie in his hands.

And we haven’t even gotten to N’Dombele. Though his participation is somewhat doubtful, the midfielder is one of the players smart money had Barça going for if the De Jong transfer hadn’t worked out. Some would have even preferred him to De Jong, though that decision would have marked a seismic philosophical change for the Catalan club.

For people who don’t follow L1, N’Dombele’s coming out party was against Manchester City. It was a performance that showed off all of his strengths: pace, balance, passing facility, ability to break lines, strength and technical facility. There is a reason that Jean-Michel Aulas, head of Lyon, has said that the much-buzzed-about midfielder will not even be discussed for less than Pogba money.

And then there’s Memphis, aka Mister 98 Percent. He’s another quick, fast, skillful attacker on the Lyon front line who, like Alexis Sanchez when he was at Barcelona, will do 98 percent of the stuff right to score a goal, then screw up at the end. But when he gets it right, he is a torment, and is fantastic moving in confined spaces as well.

In goal, Anthony Lopes is a strong, reflex keeper of the sort that can have a blinder of a match against the logical football that an idealized Barcelona plays.

Like Real Madrid in many ways, Lyon don’t have a defined tactical structure as much as they look to press advantages and create running space for their attackers. A favorite is the diagonal ball on the groud to a streaking Traore, or Mendy running up the wing to be Alba. But Lyon have strong headers of the ball, so those crosses might come high or low. One thing will work in favor of Barcelona is that the match will be open. That’s how Lyon plays, and needs to play, because a tight match negates every one of their tactical and physical strengths.

If none of this still has you worried, you haven’t been paying any attention. All of this said. Lyon could show up without its heads screwed on, and lay a 0-4 plonker against Barça. They’re that kind of a club. But they could also quite easily beat Barça. They are faster at every position except where Dembele will be playing, so possession will be crucial for Barcelona. Of all the matches for Arthur to be absent …

The roster I would choose against Lyon is the one we’re least likely to see: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Umtiti, Alba, Busquets, Raktic, Alenya, Malcom, Messi, Dembele. This is, essentially, a group of the fastest and most skillful players that Barcelona have on the team. There’s a reason.

Umtiti hasn’t played a competitive match in months, so Lenglet will probably start. Putting a reactive defender against Traore and Memphis will be interesting to watch. Pique will have a lot of work to do. Malcom would start over Suarez for me because Lyon’s CBs are susceptible to a fast break off the shoulder. That isn’t going to happen with Suarez.

Most likely, Valverde will start what has become his gala XI: Ter Stegen, Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Vidal, Messi, Suarez, Dembele. And we will worry every time Lyon have the ball as they explode up the wings. This will be a tiring match for Barcelona, with league implications as Sevilla away will be next on the docket. That significant lead over Atleti and Real Madrid could come in handy.

Prediction? A scoring draw, either 1-1 or 2-2, then Barça will do the trick at home. But it won’t be easy. If N’Dombele doesn’t play that first leg, it will be a lot less fraught in midfield, but the wings will still be a constant danger. Neutrals will have the most fun with this one.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.