Jaws dropped all over Europe when the news came through that Lyon had seen off Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League and at the same time dumping out Europe’s richest club in the round of 16.
But should we really have been all that surprised? Sergio Ramos may have been happy to claim, “We’re going to win 3-0 and the fans are going to enjoy watching” before the match. But he would have done well to do his homework properly before shouting his mouth off.
Firstly, Real had failed to qualify for the quarters of Europe’s most prestigious club tournament in any of the previous five campaigns. And perhaps more importantly, in the previous five Champions League encounters between Lyon and Real the French club has never lost against its far more illustrious neighbours.
Their record before pulling off this memorable 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu on Wednesday March 10 stood at three victories and two draws. Miralem Pjanic’s smartly-taken goal 15 minutes from time cancelled out Cristiano Ronaldo’s opening strike on six minutes and restored the overall advantage that Lyon had carved out in the first leg thanks to Jean Il Makoun’s goal in that 1-0 win.
In the end Lyon’s progress to the quarters was thoroughly merited. Over the course of the two legs Claude Puel’s side – assembled at a cost of some 70 million euros in comparison to a figure of 250 euros million spent by Madrid Chairman Florentino Perez – snuffed out the Real threat and could have inflicted even more pain on Manuel Pellegrini’s side had Lisandro Lopez and Cesar Delgado buried two gilt-edged chances at the end of the contest. Not that Lyon will be complaining. Especially not coach Puel, who proved his worth with a tactical reshuffle at half time that completely transformed the match.
Lyon had suffered badly in the first period, managing a paltry 35 per cent of the possession and completing just 58 per cent of their passes. With just one shot attempted in comparison to Real’s nine, drastic action was needed and Puel didn’t shirk the challenge. When Boumsong and Makoun were both forced to withdraw with injuries after 45 minutes the often-criticised Lyon boss was decisive, moving Toulalan back into a central defensive role, bringing on two combative midfielders in Kallstrom and Gonalons to cut off Real’s supply lines and pushing Pjanic into the hole to halt Lisandro’s isolation up front.
The plan worked to perfection and the second period saw the visiting team assume control of the game and grab their just rewards thanks to Pjanic’s strike. After the game the Bosnian was quick to point out how the Real players’ pre-match comments had motivated Lyon.
“We read a lot of stuff from the Real players in the press beforehand that really annoyed us,” explained the 19 year old after the game. “They lacked respect.”
It’s not been the easiest of seasons for Lyon. Just three months ago they slipped to ninth place in their domestic league, eight points behind leaders Bordeaux, and all the talk was of a major crisis at the club as Puel’s side leaked goals. But some good old-fashioned hard work has seen Lyon haul themselves back into contention for the Ligue 1 title.
Just four points separated them from leaders Bordeaux at the time of the Bernabeu extravaganza and OL is the only club in the French top flight to remain unbeaten since the traditional winter break. Much of the praise for this turnaround in fortunes must go to Puel, a man who isn’t easy to love with his rather dour demeanour, but whose hard work, tactical nous and desire for hard work has paid dividends. But let’s not forget garrulous President Jean-Michel Aulas either. Aulas has been steadfast in his support of Puel and his faith in the coach is certainly paying off handsomely now. “Now we have a match that we can use as a reference,” he said. “The final? Why not?”
Why not? Well, Lyon have never made it past the quarter-final stage in the Champions League, so if history provides us with any indication then it will be tough. And looking at the quality of opposition at this stage of the competition, the Manchester Uniteds, Bayern Munichs, Arsenals and Inter Milans of this world, then you’d have to say that Lyon won’t be favourites to progress to the semis.
But after knocking out one of Europe’s giants for the first time in their history, who’s to say that the French outfit can’t go all the way and give themselves another chance to shine at the Bernabeu – in the final itself on May 22?