Europa League Preview : Olympique Lyonnais v Ajax
OL. Oh dear. Oh well. A 4-1 defeat in their semi-final first leg against Ajax gives les Gones a mountain to climb when they still seem a decent bet to trip over their own feet if the opportunity presents itself.
It was a heavy defeat, despite the best efforts of Anthony Lopes, who made 12 (twelve) saves, the most in any Europa League match this season; it also featured a lovely curling strike from Matthieu Valbuena to make it 3-1 before Nabil Fekir missed the chance to keep things really interesting. Mostly, OL were let down by a defence that spent a lot of time forlornly running after people, or – on the fourth goal – simply standing still as Bertrand Traore whizzed through to bag his brace.
Jean-Michel Aulas is gamely insisting that OL can overturn the deficit, apparently inventing the word « remontajax », which suggests that the last couple of weeks have been even more stressful than they have appeared. While OL are certainly capable of scoring three goals (doing so 11 times in 26 games in all competitions in 2017), they are much less likely to keep a clean sheet (4 in the same period).
Given Ajax’s youthful exuberance, the OL defence seems unlikely to stop them completely – even if they are looking ahead to the Eredivisie fixture at Willem II on Sunday. That will be their focus, as they are still in the Eredivisie title race, which looked less than likely before the first leg – they understandably beat bottom-of-the-table Go Ahead Eagles 4-0, but Feyenoord messed up to lose 3-0 at mid-table Excelsior, to leave Ajax only one point behind them. It is out of their hands, therefore, but they need to make sure of the win in case Feyenoord drop points against Heracles Almelo.
Lyon, meanwhile, are fourth in Ligue 1, five points ahead of Marseille, having picked up six points in a week – three from the LFP Disciplinary Commission’s decision to award them a win for the abandoned game at Bastia (with no impact on goals), and three from their 3-2 win over Nantes on Sunday. That was rather an event, with OL a goal down when a frustrated and frustrating Alexandre Lacazette was taken off after 62 minutes for Maxwel Cornet, at which point things got rapidly more interesting.
OL almost immediately won a penalty, which Fekir converted, before Cornet made it 2-1; Guillaume Gillet then levelled it for Nantes, before Cornet got his double for the winner – both his goals assisted by Memphis, who at least had the sense not to tweet anything provocative about a lion eating a canary pre-match after that unfortunate hake incident. A win, then, but not massively reassuring if you let a team scoring one a game put two past you, with their only two shots on target. They will be playing Montpellier in the next round, which confrontation has a tendency to involve six goals and with OL to the good, but with La Paillade still not safe, they may at least be trying. As a Montpellier fan, I can attest that they have frequently been trying this season. Anyway.
Ajax are alongside Monaco as clubs currently being eyed with interest as a source of young talent for the summer transfer market, and OL are arguably another. Lacazette is second in the Ligue 1 scoring charts with 24, but Fekir and Corentin Tolisso are also there with eight (along with Valbuena), and looking at the assist list there are also many young talents to see. Ajax Manager Peter Bosz is worried about Lacazette, saying of his review of the first leg “I already saw five or six moments where if my defenders stand like they were standing yesterday, against Lacazette he will score.”
Bruno Genesio is under pressure after being cut off from the Ligue 1 podium and the first-leg result here, and while that might seem harsh, his decisions do not seem to be helping his team’s occasionally flaky approach. While the bookies have OL favourites to win this match, Ajax are understandably the heavy favourites to qualify. Who will be on the OL bench for next season’s Europa campaign is anyone’s guess; their fans will be hoping for a victory, if not a final, to finish this season’s long and winding European journey.
Predicted starting XIs:
OL: Lopes; Jallet, Nkoulou, Diakhaby, Morel; Tolisso, Gonalons (c); Fekir, Cornet, Valbuena; Lacazette
Ajax: Onana; Veltman, Sanchez, De Ligt, Viergever; Klaassen, Schone, Ziyech; Traore, Dolberg, Younes