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Lyon, France’s faded force, can still roar in Europe


Lisbon (AFP) – Lyon’s days as France’s dominant team have become a distant memory with Paris Saint-Germain’s emergence, but their European pedigree shows they should not be underestimated in Saturday’s Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City.

Really, just being at the ‘Final Eight’ in Lisbon is a bonus for Rudi Garcia’s team.

They produced one of their famous European results by eliminating Italian champions Juventus in the last round on away goals, setting up the free hit of a one-off tie against Pep Guardiola’s side.

City know from recent experience that Lyon are not to be taken lightly.

The sides clashed in the group stage last season, with Lyon inflicting a rare home defeat on Guardiola’s team when they won 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium. They followed that by drawing 2-2 back in France.

Nevertheless, that was close to two years ago now, and Lyon’s team in the latter encounter included three key players who have since departed.

Captain Nabil Fekir, part of France’s World Cup-winning squad in 2018, was sold to Betis, while midfielder Tanguy Ndombele left for Tottenham Hotspur and left-back Ferland Mendy is now at Real Madrid.

They also have a different coach.

Bruno Genesio is now working in China and, after a brief experiment with former Brazil defender Sylvinho, Garcia is at the helm.

Yet his past connection with Marseille meant he was never a popular appointment and poor performances in the league have done nothing to endear him to supporters.

Lyon, France’s second-richest club, were seventh when the Ligue 1 season ended early in late April, with 10 rounds of matches unplayed, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

They returned to action with a defeat on penalties to PSG in the League Cup final in July, meaning an eight-year trophy drought goes on and that Lyon have to win the Champions League if they are to be back in Europe again next season.

– ‘We’re the outsiders’ –

A first campaign without European football in 24 years therefore looks likely, with Bayern Munich or Barcelona in their way in the semi-final should they see off City.

“We wanted to get to the ‘Final Eight’ in Lisbon and here we are,” said Garcia, after ousting Juventus.

“We are the outsiders now but that suits us.”

Only once before have Lyon made it beyond this stage: in 2009/10 they beat Liverpool at Anfield in the group stage, stunned Real Madrid in the last 16 and then defeated Bordeaux before losing to Bayern in the semis.

Before that, in the middle of their run of seven successive domestic league titles, Lyon lost in the quarter-finals three years running between 2004 and 2006.

Then, Brazilian midfielder Juninho was their star player, frequently scoring brilliant free-kicks. Now he is their sporting director, and it was thanks to him that Lyon unearthed a new Brazilian gem earlier this year.

Bruno Guimaraes is a classy midfielder, just 22 but capable of running games, as he did in the 1-0 win over Juventus just before football stopped due to the pandemic. Juninho believes his compatriot will become “one of the best in the world”.

Lyon have other potential match-winners, notably Dutch forward Memphis Depay. They are also confident a corner has been turned since the restart.

“The players know we have a talented team but that before they were not playing well together,” said Juninho.

“But with the right mentality they can do great things.”

Beating City would fall into that category, and they have done that before.

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