Europa League Preview : Lyon v Roma
Thursday night, and Lyon are the last French team standing in the Europa League after another traditionally shaky set of performances from the Ligue 1 contingent: LOSC didn’t make it through the qualifying rounds, Nice didn’t make it out of the group, and Saint-Etienne didn’t make it past Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who must feature in Stephane Ruffier’s nightmares. OL, of course, are only here because they dropped down from the Champions League, but as they faced a group with Juventus and Sevilla in it, there is little shame in that. They certainly seemed to grasp their new challenge with both hands in the first knock-out round, winning 11-2 on aggregate over AZ, a result which made you wonder if you were checking the women’s team’s results by mistake.
It’s safe to say that their next challenge will be a little different.
Roma were also in a different competition at the beginning of the season, but joined the Europa League party earlier on after being knocked out of Champions League qualifying by Porto. They maybe took things a little easy in the group stage, getting three wins and three draws to come top over Viktoria Plzen, Astra Giurgiu, and Austria Wien. However, this was a well-calculated gamble by manager Luciano Spaletti, as Roma fan Nicolle Zamora observes, to “deliberately play it safe so we had enough energy for the league” – this also perhaps showed in the first knock-out round, where after beating Villarreal 4-0 away, six changes were made for the second leg. They lost that 1-0, but won’t mind that as things were kept fresh for their next league match – a 3-1 away win at Inter.
There has been a slight dip since then – a loss to city rivals Lazio in the cup, and then to Napoli in the league; Roma are second, but that last result allowed Napoli to draw within two points of them. So Spaletti has another calculation to make – how much of a problem could chaotically-run relegation candidate Palermo possibly pose at the weekend?
Spaletti’s starting XI will therefore be interesting here, but looks set to be a strong one. Roma have shifted from a back four to a back three since December, which seems to have borne fruit, making things look a little more solid. For Zamora, this was a mix of tactical change and practicality: “a bit of both with players finally getting over injuries and forming a consistent partnership. Once we had our speedy midfielders all back from either injury or AFCON I think it freed up the defence to cover more ground more effectively”.
Also, although doubting that Spaletti will set up ‘defence-only’, that will have to be a priority: “Alexandre Lacazette is going to be a handful for our defenders who are not as quick as our midfield and also unfortunately have a tendency to make risky fouls when the pressure is on. We’ve let in far too many goals against Lazio and Napoli in our last games and facing a strong quick striker like Lacazette is going to be a true test of our resilience”.
Lyon fans will certainly hope so – and with Lacazette also scoring 10 of his 27 goals this season from the penalty spot, those reservations about the defence may also be useful for the home team. They will have to be on their toes defensively as well, however, as Roma also boast their league’s second-highest scorer – and theirs is also the joint top-scorer in the Europa League. Edin Dzeko has 19 in Serie A and 8 in Europe, including a hat-trick in the first-leg demolition of Villarreal (he was one of those rested for the second leg) – with just one penalty in there.
So, can he keep this up? He hasn’t scored in three but did get two assists against Inter, and Zamora is hopeful: “Dzeko is a great fit at Roma because he seems to be as sensitive as the rest of our team – when his confidence is high he can do anything, will try any shot, and rides his luck. I do fear that both his and our recent bad results will affect our mood and attitude and as a team will be a little nervous in this away leg. If we can get lucky and score early/first then the confidence will come roaring back.”
The OL defence has had its moments this season – sometimes covered for by their opposition being worse – so Dzeko will be a headache, particularly with the other creative players who will also be looking to take advantage of a lapse, including Stephen ‘how did that not work out at Monaco?’ El Shaarawy, Mohamed Salah and evergreen legend Francesco Totti, still chipping in at the age of 40.
Lyon have to have a slightly firmer eye on the weekend’s game as Toulouse rock up to the Parc OL: despite only getting three points (and one goal) from their last three matches, les Toulousains could be a tricky proposition for OL, who have been showing their flaky side of late in the league. Capable of hammering lower opposition (Dijon, Metz, AZ) they picked up one of only two draws all season against Bordeaux at the weekend. At home, they should have enough to see off Pascal Dupraz’s men, particularly given their scoring issues at present, but after the second leg have PSG to look forward to, so careful man-management will be required.
Bruno Genesio’s approach to that is to have already confirmed that captain Maxime Gonalons will start, after a difficult period in which his form has understandably suffered due to health problems affecting his recently-born child (happily, baby Tom is reported to be doing well) – « Je compte sur lui, c’est mon capitaine, et il a la confiance de tout le monde. Il sera titulaire » – while admitting that Roma were one of two teams (along with Manchester United) that he’d really rather have avoided at this stage.
Cue some philosophical observations : « mais pour aller au bout, il faut éliminer les grosses équipes, alors…» OL have already beaten the league leaders this season, 3-1 away; now they have to prove they can keep their heads on the European stage. They should do it – but maybe don’t bet on a clean sheet.
OL : Lopes, Gorgelin – Rafael, Diakhaby, Jallet, Morel, Mammana, Yanga-Mbiwa – Aouar, Darder, Ferri, Tolisso, Gonalons, Tousart – Cornet, Fekir, Valbuena, Ghezzal, Lacazette
Roma : Alisson Becker, Lobont, Szczesny – Manolas, Emerson Palmieri, Rui, Fazio, Vermaelen, Bruno Peres, Juan Jesus – Gerson, De Rossi, Perotti, Strootman, Paredes, Nainggolan – Salah, El Shaarawy, Totti, Dzeko