Jimmy Briand’s late goal secured Lyon a 2-1 win against Athletic Bilbao and maintained Les Gônes’ 100% record in this year’s Europa League, in what turned into a very enjoyable match at the Stade Gerland.
To be fair to their Spanish/Basque opponents, a draw was the least that they deserved, and the fact that Lyon’s keeper, the much-maligned Remy Vercoutre, was the man of the match says much for the visitors’ performance. However, Lyon showed a good balance of defensive rigour and attacking flair and the celebrations of coach Remi Garde and captain Lisandro Lopez, both for the goals and at the final whistle, showed how much the win meant.
In fact, Garde gave an indication of how seriously the club is taking the competition this season by fielding a strong team, despite an important match coming up at the weekend against Marseille. Top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis was named as a substitute but it meant that Lopez could move to the centre, with veteran string-puller Steed Malbranque behind him in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Lyon’s attacking players were, however, peripheral figures for most of the first half as last year’s beaten finalists Bilbao, despite a rocky start to their season, turned in the type of assured passing performance that has become their trademark under the ever-eccentric Marcelo Bielsa; Iturraspe in the midfield looked particularly impressive as Lyon at times chased shadows. However, chances were at a premium as Lyon’s defence, playing a high line, worked well as a unit, the sometimes accident-prone Koné putting in an excellent performance under the guidance of Lovren. The Bilbao attackers were caught offside a few times, the defence rode their luck a little (at least one of the offside decisions was debatable at best) and, when the trap was broken, Vercoutre was on hand to make two excellent saves. Lyon had to wait until the 42nd minute for their first chance, a Malbranque daisycutter well saved by Iraizoz. 0-0 at half time then, with little of note to report.
The second half, however, was an excellent spectacle, with both sides playing good football, Bilbao continuing to have the majority of possession but Lyon keeping the ball much better and looking a constant threat. It burst into life on around 55 minutes. Vercoutre had just made another good save from Aduriz, when the ball came to Briand near the halfway line and to the right. He controlled well and delayed his pass perfectly for Réveillère, overlapping, to pick up. His perfect cross was met beautifully by Lopez, who placed his header out of the reach of Iraizoz from 10 yards. A 25th goal in 54 European appearances for the talismanic Argentine.
With the Gerland buzzing and the crowd chanting Licha’s name, one hoped for Lyon to relax and perhaps push on. Instead they began falling deeper back – even more so once Llorente came on. Within minutes Aduriz had hit the bar with a cross-cum-shot and also missed a sitter after an awful clearance from Vercoutre.
By now, Gomis and Alexandre Lacazette had replaced Lopez and Malbranque, but Bilbao were threatening and Vercoutre had to pull off a couple of impressive punched clearances in close succession. Suddenly, though, Lyon had the chance to extend their lead, a patient team move ending with a Gomis cross-shot trickling inches past the far post. Inevitably, Lyon were to rue that miss within minutes. Llorente did superbly to control a long ball on his chest before squaring to Ibai Gomez, who curled one into the far corner.
At 1-1 with 10 minutes to go, both teams could have been forgiven for settling for a draw, but they were clearly only interested in the 3 points. Gomis went straight up the other end and unleashed a shot from 30 yards which Iraizoz did well to tip over. Bilbao went back down the pitch and, after another chested knock-down sent Susaeta clear on goal, Vercoutre pulled off a stupendous save, diving backwards to flick the shot, which was already past him, over the bar. Now Lyon went back on the attack. This time it was Fofana, the two-goal hero against Kiryat Shmona, who let fly from distance. Iraizoz could only parry the shot and Briand was on hand to put away the rebound, sending the home crowd – and home bench – crazy. This time Lyon had only 4 minutes to hang on, which they did with ease, to a soundtrack of La Marseillaise – in fact Gomis missed a chance to score another, taking too long over his shot after another good one-touch move.
Another job well done for the Lyonnais, who look well set to go through to the knock-out stages and who now move on to the Olympique derby on Sunday evening.