FC Barcelona prepare to turbocharge their bid to reconquer the UEFA Champions League with a match away to Olympique Lyonnais. It’s obvious, but should be remembered: Barça want to avenge an embarrassing crash against AS Roma last season, as well as wrest away the trophy from Real Madrid, their biggest rivals.
And yet, Lyon are no pushovers. They do not have a huge budget and are not filled with household names, but they are a legitimately strong opponent that has already caused big problems for the likes of Manchester City this season. Lyon is yet to lose in Europe this term, and, having won 2-1 and then drawn 2-2 against City, would have eliminated the bookies’ title favorites for the Champions League had those results held in a two-legged knockout tie.
Fitness and form
Barcelona remain without Rafinha and Jasper Cillessen, and have recently had to cope with the absence of a starting midfielder in Arthur due to injury. Samuel Umtiti has made the squad for a homecoming to his old club, but he’s still a doubt to take part. Rafinha and Cillessen would be unlikely to feature, but Umtiti continues to be a miss. Meanwhile, losing Arthur could prove pivotal.
On the other side, Rafael da Silva and young Amine Gouiri are set to miss out for Lyon. Rafael could have played a role, but he’s not essential for Lyon. Gouiri, an academy player, is yet to make an impression on the first team.
Two potential starters, Tanguy Ndombele and Jason Denayer are possible absences for Lyon, as well. Nabil Fekir, who is one of their big stars, is suspended.
Lyon are in hot form, having won 6 of the last 7 matches. Barça have won just one of the last 4. That being said, Barcelona obviously play against a higher standard of competition in Spain than OL do in France.
Luis Suárez admitted feeling tired when Barcelona crashed out against Roma last season. Having rested some of Barça’s 1-0 triumph over Real Valladolid, will he, along with his teammates, be in good enough shape to see off Lyon?
For Ernesto Valverde, there’s basically only two questions. First, will Nélson Semedo play at right-back, or will it be Sergi Roberto? Semedo should probably be considered the favorite as he rested against Valladolid, and Valverde has rotated the pair over the last few weeks rather consistently.
Next, who will take Arthur’s place in midfield? Arturo Vidal is the favorite, but Philippe Coutinho, Carles Aleñá, and Roberto are also options. There’s a possibility as well for Valverde to revert to a 4-4-2 formation he preferred last year, with Ousmane Dembélé taking up a right-midfield spot and Coutinho on the left.
Other than that, the team picks itself: Marc-André ter Stegen in goal; Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, and Jordi Alba making up a back four alongside either Semedo or Roberto; Ivan Rakitić and Sergio Busquets in midfield, and Lionel Messi, Suárez, and Dembélé sure to be picked as attackers.
Lyon manager Bruno Génésio has varied the formation over the season, changing between a three-man line and a four-man line with variations along the midfield and attack lines for each. Regardless, he prefers a double pivot of Ndombele and Houssem Aouar. Lately, they’ve gone with a 4-2-3-1, so that may be the most probable formation. The side’s biggest question is who steps up in Fekir’s spot.
It could be Aouar in a more advanced role, bringing in Lucas Tousart to the pivot role. Martin Terrier could be a more straightforward swap for Fekir. Memphis Depay could also take up that spot behind the striker.
Anthony Lopes will likely be between the sticks, with Denayer partnering Marcelo Guedes in defense, and Ferland Mendy and Léo Dubois in the fullback positions. Assuming Ndombele is alongside Aouar, we will likely see Maxwel Cornet or Bertrand Traoré taking one wing spot, with Memphis taking the other, and Terrier through the middle. Moussa Dembélé would be the lone striker. Of course, we could also see Memphis through the middle, or as a striker, and/or both Cornet and Traoré in the wing positions. There’s a fair degree of flexibility in those last two bands of the formation.
If Barcelona play 4-3-3 and OL 4-2-3-1, the matchups are fairly straightforward. Lenglet and Piqué will pick up Lyon’s striker, while the two fullbacks will go up against the two wingers. Busquets will have to defend the opposition’s central attacking midfielder, while Ndombele and Aouar’s direct rivals will be Rakitić and Vidal. However, the Lyon pair, and especially Ndombele, will want to help double Messi, who will have Mendy occupied. On the other flank, Dubois’s direct matchup will be Ousmane Dembélé. The two centerbacks will be tasked with either doubling Suárez or protecting the fullbacks from players cutting inside or trying to cause overloads.
Whoever plays right-wing for Lyon, which could be Memphis, will have his hands full with the flying Jordi Alba, who remains unusually involved in the Catalans’ build-up and chance creation for a left-back. Luckily for the French team, they’re a team that is known for its players’ sacrifice while defending, and particularly, while pressing.
Génésio has said that he will not task one particular player with man-marking Messi, instead hoping his team can defend him as a unit. He spoke before the match about wanting to unbalance Barcelona, and cut their rhythm. For that reason, Arthur is a huge miss for the blaugrana, as he is a player who can set the pace with his precise passing. Vidal offers something else entirely, which might be a reason for Valverde to choose differently. But that’s also why losing Fekir is a huge absence for Lyon: he is a key man in terms of pressing for them, in addition to his skill on the ball.
Busquets will be tasked with getting out of Lyon’s first line of pressure and transitioning the ball from defense to attack. If he can do that, the forwards will have an easier time getting into good positions.
Lyon will try frequently to counterattack down the wings, and there’s a chance they’ll be targeting the cross to the far post where Barcelona’s smaller fullbacks may have difficulties against an aerial threat. They’re also good at attacking set pieces, though perhaps less so defending them. Alongside the usual suspects, Vidal could be an additional threat in the box for receiving crosses compared to the likes of Arthur or Coutinho.
Barcelona also will look to their wingers and fullbacks to create opportunities down the flanks. Perhaps they will look for free kicks and corners to score, like City did. They also have to be willing to take long shots to try to decongest the box a bit, something Rakitić, Coutinho, Messi, Ousmane Dembélé and Suárez are quite adept at.
The key thing here is that Barcelona have been much worse away from home in Europe than at the Camp Nou, more so than is usual for a team. If the Catalans can get a result at the Lyon Olympic Stadium - even a scoring draw should be considered good - they will feel very confident about the return leg. However, a loss, particularly one by many goals or one in which they fail to score, could set up a very uncomfortable second leg.