Lyon surprise means major powers locked out of the top league

Monday, August 17th, 2020 00:00 |
Lyon’s French forward Moussa Dembele (R) celebrates after scoring his team’s second goal during the UCL quarter-final football match between Manchester City and Lyon at the Jose Alvalade stadium in Lisbon Saturday. Photo/AFP

Lyon were not supposed to make it to Lisbon at all for the Champions League ‘Final Eight’, but now they are through to one of two Franco-German semi-finals against Bayern Munich while the giants of England, Spain and Italy watch from the sidelines.

It is an unlikely last-four line-up in this unprecedented finale to the competition, reduced to a straight knockout tournament from the quarter-finals onwards after the long delay to the season caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Among those celebrating this shared Franco-German success on Saturday night was the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

“In Brussels and on the football field, France and Germany are the driving forces in Europe,” wrote Macron, a Marseille fan, on Twitter.

Better rested?

France may be the world champions but their best players usually move abroad. Ligue 1 is often derided by outside observers.

Now, for the first time it has two clubs in the Champions League semi-finals in the same season.

“FARMERS LEAGUE” wrote PSG’s Kylian Mbappe in a tweet on Saturday as he congratulated Lyon, in an ironic reference to an oft-used insult towards Ligue 1 on social media.

The two French clubs could still meet in the final, a year after Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspur in an all-English final and Europe appeared to accept once and for all that the Premier League was an unstoppable force.

But aside from the more unpredictable nature of one-off matches behind closed doors on neutral territory compared to the usual home and away ties, maybe there is a more obvious explanation.

Those in France who feared the decision to end their season early in April due to the health crisis would prove a major handicap for their clubs in Europe are being forced to revise their thinking.

At the time, a front-page headline in sports daily L’Equipe summed up the mood. “Like idiots”, it said.

40 days

Paris Saint-Germain had played two competitive matches in five months before defeating Atalanta in their quarter-final.

Lyon managed just one competitive outing in the same period before going to Turin and eliminating Juventus on away goals last weekend.

Buoyed by that triumph, a team that finished seventh in the shortened French season promptly ousted Manchester City.

“It is incredible because we are the surprise team now. I don’t think many people expected us to get here,” said Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes.

PSG and Lyon now face RB Leipzig and Bayern respectively, with the two German clubs having come into the ‘Final Eight’ rested and raring to go, the Bundesliga season having restarted before ending in late June.

In contrast, City played 12 matches in 40 days after the Premier League resumed in mid-June, before beating Real Madrid in their last 16, second leg.

Atalanta played 13 games in six weeks, while Spain’s representatives played twice a week between mid-June and mid-July. - AFP

More on Sports