UEFA Women’s Champions League: Lyon under threat from French rivals

LYON have dominated women’s football in Europe for the past decade and have been European champions for the past five years. But this season, they are facing a challenge from, among others, their national rivals Paris Saint-Germain. The two teams are neck-and-neck at the top of D1 Féminine and they will face each other in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League.

Lyon have lost only three league games in the past 10 years (including 2020-21) and they’ve all been against PSG. Lyon have been French champions for an astonishing 14 consecutive years, but PSG, with their considerable resources, are now eager to capture their crown.

But there is a problem. PSG have been hit by the covid-19 virus and had to forfeit their round of 16 second leg tie with Sparta Prague, losing 3-0 as a result. They still went through as they had won 5-0 in the first meeting. PSG have also had to shut down their academy due to the pandemic. 

PSG have some outstanding players, though, notably the free-scoring duo Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Kadidiatou Diani. Katoto is a fast performer who is rapidly developing into a prolific goalscorer, while Diani is a lightning-quick winger. They also have one of the best goalkeeper’s in women’s football in Christiane Endler of Chile.

Lyon have a star-studded squad, in fact in the Guardian’s top 100 women players, they provided 11, many of which were highly-placed. They include the indomitable figure of Wendie Renard, the club captain and arguably the best centre back in the world. They also have Nikita Parris, the former Manchester City striker who has been capped 50 times by England.

Lyon and PSG and most of the last eight in the Champions League are part of the elite of women’s football in Europe. These clubs accounted for 63% of the Guardian’s top 100 and are able to attract all the top talent. Almost 16% of the participants in the FIFA World Cup in 2019 came from these clubs, with Chelsea and Manchester City providing 12 players each.

They are also regulars at this stage of the competition: Lyon, Wolfsburg and Barcelona have all featured in every last eight over the past five years, with PSG and Bayern missing one and Chelsea and Manchester City present in three. Just as the men’s Champions League has a remarkably familiar look about it, the women are moving in a similar direction.

Barcelona versus Manchester City is another exciting tie, the first leg of which will be played in Monza, Italy. Barca are top of the Primera División having won all 19 of their games so far. They are nine points clear of Levante, but their goalscoring record is incredible –  95 for, three against! Barca’s firepower is thanks to the exciting Spanish international Jenni Hermoso and Asisat Oshoala of Nigeria. 

City, meanwhile, have the England pair Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood in their ranks, both arriving from Lyon. They joined a plethora of England internationals at the club, including Steph Houghton, Ellie Roebuck, Chloe Kelly and Ellen White. 

City are chasing the Women’s Super League title alongside Chelsea and just two points divide them. Chelsea face Wolfsburg in the Champions League, a tie that gives Denmark’s Pernille Harder, rated the best player in the world, the chance to face her old club. Harder was signed by Chelsea in September 2020 for a world record fee of £ 300,000. 

Wolfsburg are currently behind Bayern Munich in the Frauen-Bundesliga after four consecutive titles (all of which saw Bayern in second place). Bayern are five points ahead, but Wolfsburg have lost just once, a 4-1 defeat in Munich. The loss of Harder, along with a long-term injury to Polish striker Ewa Pojor has made life difficult for the German champions. Despite these obstacles, Wolfsburg’s Alex Popp is still among the top players in Europe.

Bayern Munich meet Swedish club FC Rosengård of Malmö, the 11-times winners of the Damallsvenskan. Bayern may yet repeat the achievement of the men’s team this season and pull-off the treble: Champions League, DFB Pokal and Bundesliga. Vital player Lina Magull is their skipper and is now back in the side after injury, but Bayern have some stand-outs in 20 year-old Sydney Lohmann and defender Hanna Glas.

It’s a formidable last eight and although it’s full of the usual suspects, we could see a new winner of the Champions League. Chelsea and Manchester City are desperate for European success and PSG are longing to take over from Lyon. And of course, there’s Bayern. It promises to be a compelling set of matches.


Manchester City v Lyon: Does Pep’s brick wall need therapy?

THE GUARD continues to change. No Messi, no CR7 and now, Pep Guardiola has to step aside. It’s France v Germany in the semi-finals, the league that was supposed to be lagging the other “big five” has two representatives. Admittedly one is the heavily bankrolled Paris Saint-Germain, but Lyon were not meant to be present at the last four party.

Manchester City remain in pursuit of the elusive holy grail of big time football, victims of their own defensive shortcomings and perhaps a little over-confidence in the belief Lyon could be easily despatched. Even the media saw them as makeweights in this Lisbon shoot-out.

UEFA should be thankful in some ways. PSG or Leipzig will be in the final, two clubs that divide opinion for various reasons, but mostly as poster-childs for the corporatisation of European football. But should City and PSG have reached the final, the clash of middle eastern-backed clubs would have served to provide a “told you so” snipe at the modern football paradigm. For now, UEFA have been spared that.

Winning the Champions League, as Pep said afterwards, is a tough task. At the business end of the competition, the quality is high and you need luck as well as guile. In a one-off scenario, the pitch is laden with banana skins and there’s no second chance second leg to retrieve the situation. It is good old fashioned knockabout football – a concept the Pan-European club game has rarely seen.

Still, you would have expected City to come through against a team that were seventh in Ligue 1 before the French authorities closed down the competition and handed PSG the title they have bossed since Qatar put its cash on la Table.

A team like City has no real excuse for having alarming gaps in their squad, such as an accomplished defender or two, especially as they went very long on full backs a couple of years ago, spending around £ 150 million. Given they are coached by an obsessive like Guardiola, their carelessness at times in 2020 has been strange – or is it merely that the Pep way has been rumbled?

Certainly this was City’s big opportunity to work their way past their usual stumbling blocks and reach the final. Under Guardiola, City have fallen before the last four every time.

The 2019-20 season for City has been littered with errors, perhaps due to trophy fatigue but also attributable to a lack of quality at the back. Lyon, a club whose wage bill is just over a third of Paris Saint-Germain’s and a couple of hundred million less than Manchester City pay to their players, has a squad that is valued at little more than £ 300 million versus Guardiola’s £ 900 million dressing room.

Lyon have a reputation for developing players via their highly-rated academy. Goalkeeper Anthony Lopes came through OL’s system and demonstrated that he may appear “flashy” but that shouldn’t detract from the fact he’s a fine custodian. Houssem Aouar and Maxence Caqueret are also products of the OL youth team. The starting line-up against Manchester City cost around € 75 million versus City’s € 500 million-plus. It should have been a formality if you compare the stats.

City looked quite relaxed in the opening stages, but the opening goal for Lyon, by Maxwel Cornet in the 24thminute, hinted at the fiasco that was to follow. Cornet took advantage of the ball pinging back from a challenge involving Eric Garcia and the troublesome Karl Toko Ekambi. Cornet’s finish was outstanding, but should it have happened in the first place?

When Kevin De Bruyne equalised in the 69th minute with a typically slick finish, you feared for Lyon, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Moussa Dembélé came on as a substitute in the 75th minute, replacing Memphis Depay. Within four minutes, Dembélé had restored Lyon’s lead, racing onto a ball that went through the legs of Ekambi who was in an offside position, and shooting in off Ederson. There was a hint of controversy about the goal because of a foul earlier in play, but it was a forlorn hope for City.

Raheem Sterling should have equalised but sent his effort, Rosenthal-style, over the crossbar from close range. The ball swung to the opposite end and a tame shot from Aouar is parried by Ederson and Dembélé was on hand to tap home. Game well and truly over. City had 71% of the ball but only seven shots on target. Lyon had six on target from 29%.

For a manager so indelibly linked with the Champions League, Guardiola’s record may still be good, but as the go-to man to win such prizes for his employers, he has not fulfilled the promise at Bayern or City. If he does it in 2021, it will be 10 years between successes. For most managers, the trophy only comes around once, but for those who are blessed twice or three times, there is generally a short gap between success. Jupp Heynckes had a 15-year span between winning his two European Cups, while Ernst Happel won in 1970 with Feyenoord and Hamburg 13 years later. Guardiola comes third in that list if he wins in 2021, but even he is starting to realise City hit a wall when the games become crucial.

Four quarter finals, all very engaging and with just a hint of unpredictability, which is a very rare commodity in this age of serial title winners across the main domestic leagues. UEFA must be very tempted.



Photo: PA

Lyon are fancied, but PSG have most of the cards

IT’S all getting a little too predictable in France, with Paris Saint-Germain winning six of the last seven Ligue 1 titles and no real sign of the dominance ending. The financial advantages the club enjoys, means PSG should win everything – hence the club’s owners have an obvious sense of expectation and occasional impatience.

Should there be a genuine contender, it might just be Lyon, who have been busy strengthening their squad and have the look of an exciting team. But in all probability, PSG will be too strong even though they will surely lose Neymar before the deadlines close.

PSG’s wage bill dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1. There are 10 clubs in the division whose budget is less than € 50 million, in other words, less than 10% of PSG’s wallet. Nimes, the team PSG beat on the opening weekend, have a wage bill of just € 27 million. Neymar’s wages at PSG come to € 36 million, to provide even more perspective.

In 2012-13, PSG’s budget was € 300 million, with Lyon second with € 145 million. In 2019-20, the budget is reported to be € 580 million versus Lyon’s € 310 million, in other words, the financial gap has actually got bigger.

So, too, is the gulf on the playing field. PSG won Ligue 1 with 91 points and more than 100 goals. In second place was Lille, 16 points behind. In their six recent title wins, PSG’s average margin of success has been 13 points, the best being in 2015-16 when they were 21 better off than Lyon.

Everyone now knows that PSG can win the title at a canter, but their “holy grail” is the Champions League. For any team other than PSG to win the title, they have to hope the Parisiens take their eye off the ball or their big stars fail to shine. Lyon, or any other team, will have to over-perform for a prolonged period of time and it is doubtful they have the squad(s) to do that.

Since PSG joined the financial super league, French football has attained a higher profile, but from having five different champions between 2008 and 2012, PSG’s reign has only been interrupted by Monaco in 2017. The last team to dominate before PSG was, ironically, Lyon, who won seven consecutive Ligue 1 titles between 2002 and 2008.

France, to be brutally frank, needs a more balanced league and in the long run, PSG require more competition in order to keep themselves sharp and motivated. The domestic platform does not equip the club appropriately for European football. This may explain why PSG have consistently fallen short in the Champions League – playing the role of flat-track bullies, week-in, week-out, cannot possibly prepare them to face the continent’s elite. Put simply, PSG are unused to being pushed until they meet the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid and hence, they fall at the difficult hurdles.

Can this change? Monaco’s 2017 triumph shows that with the right collection of players, surprises can still happen in France. Lille’s second place last season was something of a shock, but they have lost their talismanic wide man, Nicolas Pépé to Arsenal. Lyon took a couple of their players, Youssof Koné and Thiago Mendes, so they might be weaker in 2019-20. Lyon did lose Tanguy Ndomebele to Tottenham Hotspur for € 62 million, Nabil Fekir to Real Betis (€ 20 million ) and Ferland Mendy to Real Madrid (€ 48 million) but that has not dampened enthusiasm for the team’s prospects.

As well as a host of signings, Lyon have a new coach in Sylvinho, the former Barcelona, Arsenal and Manchester City full back. Jean-Michel Aulas, Lyon’s president has taken a bit of a gamble in sanctioning the appointment of Sylvinho, especially as the outspoken Aulas has gone on record to say he really wanted a head coach who understood the DNA of the club. Sylvinho has no links with OL., but newly-hired general manager, Juninho Pernambucano, is a club legend. There was, at one point, talk of Arsène Wenger returning to French football with Lyon, while Rafa Benítez and José Mourinho were also linked with the club.

Lyon’s strength is their front line, which includes Memphis Depay, Moussa Dembélé and Bertrand Traoré, all of who are 25 or younger. CIES Football Observatory values this trio at around € 210 million and there was interest in former Celtic man Dembéle from Premier League clubs in the summer, but the club was insistent he was “going nowhere”.

Dembéle was on target in Lyon’s first game, a 3-0 win at Monaco, Memphis Depay and Lucas Tousart scored the other goals. Sylvinho was delighted with the outcome: “I hoped my team would play like this, there’s always improvements to be made, but I am happy.” Lyon’s approach was cautious, despite Monaco losing new signing Fabregas to a red card, but an emphatic away win was the ideal start for the Brazilian coach.

President Aulas is looking for Lyon to close the gap on PSG but has a realistic timeframe of 2022. “In the medium term, the goal is to get closer to PSG and we will continue to invest. We have to be patient, it is a project of three to five years. Given the budget gap between the two clubs, 2022 is reasonable.”