Europa League football is back this midweek, and Theo Benneworth looks ahead to the Anglo-French clash between Spurs and Lyon.
After a two-month break, European football nights are back to quench our thirst for club-level continental clashes. While Tuesday and Wednesday gave us a few sips of Champion’s League action, Thursday brings with it copious lashings of Europa League goodness as the competition reaches its ‘Last 32’ stage. The tie of the round for most FFW regulars is surely Tottenham Hotspur versus Olympique Lyonnais, with the first leg taking place at White Hart Lane.
Back when the draw was made on 20th December, a majority of Lyon fans licked their lips. This tie seemed perfect for the French side: an opponent from a major European league and which boasts a rich history, thus ensuring a decent crowd and atmosphere for the game at Gerland; a second leg at home; and the real possibility of progressing into les huitièmes de finale (the last 16).
Back then, OL were joint top of Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain and had just topped Europa League Group I having won five and drawn one of their six games. Their haul of 16 points from a possible 18 eclipsed all other participating clubs’ totals in this season’s competition.
But that was then, and this is now. In the intervening weeks, Rémi Garde’s side has fallen into what the manager himself has referred to as “a trough”. 2013 began with a humiliating defeat to minnows Epinal in the Coupe de France (a trophy that Lyon were defending), and an indifferent points haul since the turn of the year (7 from 15) has seen Lyon fall six points behind PSG in the league table. In addition, star man Michel Bastos has moved to Schalke 04.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the Lyonnais dressing room appears unsettled. Argentinian talisman Lisandro Lopez has given up the captain’s armband and seems under par both on and off the pitch, while forward Jimmy Briand (seemingly surplus to requirements at the club) refused a transfer window move – against the wishes of the club. Thus, both of these attackers who looked to be on their way out last month (to Juventus and Monaco respectively) are still ‘in the building’.
And then, there’s the curious case of Yohann Gourcuff. The French international midfielder, who supposedly costs OL 400,000 euros gross per month, was also set to move on in January. Transfers to Fenerbahçe, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal and Liverpool failed to materialise, and the 26 year-old has been reduced to substitute duties in recent matches. Question marks remain over his physical and mental fragility, and – allegedly – the notoriously introverted Breton is no longer talking to Garde.
This unrest, coupled with back-to-back defeats against Ajaccio and Lille, mean that Lyon have had a far-from-perfect build-up to this cross-Channel trip. Time will tell whether or not the Europa League may be a welcome distraction from OL’s domestic struggles.
The hosts, in contrast, are in sparkling form. Tottenham, who finished second behind Lazio in Group J (won 2, drew 4, lost 0), have only lost one game in all competitions since mid-December and look a good bet to achieve Champion’s League qualification at the end of the season via their league position. Manager ‘AVB’ would surely love to win the Europa League again, just as he did with Porto in 2011.
Ones to Watch
Talk in the French media has focussed on the in-form Gareth Bale in the lead-up to this fixture, with Canal+ suggesting that OL’s player’s should wear ‘Bale-t proof vests’. Terrible puns aside, the fleet-footed Welshman could cause mayhem against a Lyon defence which has looked far from watertight this season.
This Anglo-French double-header could also act as a reunion for two of the players involved. Spurs ‘keeper Hugo Lloris would be facing the club he represented between 2008 and 2012, while for Lyon, veteran midfielder Steed Malbranque will be returning to N17 having represented Tottenham from 2006 to 2008. The 33 year-old, now in his second spell at OL, spent a total of ten seasons playing in England.
These two fixtures will also provide Rémi Garde with a first opportunity to pit his managerial wits against Premier League opposition. Garde, who played for Spurs’ fierce north London rivals Arsenal between 1996 and 1999, has been touted as a possible future boss for the Gunners when Arsène Wenger eventually leaves the club.
For Lyon, the aforementioned Yohann Gourcuff was a late withdrawal from the squad through injury, and is likely to miss both legs of the tie. Jimmy Briand is still out, while midfielder Arnold Mvuemba is unavailable having not been added to OL’s Europa League squad list due to ‘an administrative issue’. Other than that, the squad is at full strength, and Bakary Koné may play having represented Burkina Faso in the final of the CAN on Sunday.
For Spurs, Hugo Lloris looks set to miss out against his former team mates, as Brad Friedel is likely to start in goal. Jermaine Defoe is absent with an ankle injury, so ex-Metz and Monaco forward Emmanuel Adebayor looks set to lead the line. Sandro, Tom Huddleston and former Auxerre man Younes Kaboul are all injured, but Lewis Holtby could make a first Europa League appearance since arriving from Gelsenkirchen.
Gloomy OL fans seeking a positive omen should look to the history books. Back in the 1967-68 season, Lyon knocked Tottenham out of the Cup Winners’ Cup at the last 16 stage on away goals, after drawing 4-4 on aggregate.
For those not fortunate enough to be taking the lovers ‘up the Lane’ this Valentine’s Day, the match is being shown on W9 and beIN Sport 1 in France (kick-off 21h05 CET) and on ITV in the UK (kick-off 8.05pm GMT).
The second leg will take place at the Stade de Gerland next week, Thursday 21st February 2013 (19h CET / 6pm GMT).
The winners of the tie will face the winners of FC Internazionale Milano vs CFR 1907 Cluj in the last 16 in March.