It’s approaching crunch time in the Europa League. There are eight hopefuls left in the competition, with Manchester United the clear favourites to lift the only European trophy missing from their cabinet.
However, the tournament is about more than silverware for Jose Mourinho’s men: it is means to an end, as victory would secure qualification for next season’s Champions League, a competition they would otherwise likely miss out on through the Premier League.
Anderlecht stand most immediately in the path of the Red Devils, but Lyon are widely seen to be their biggest challengers for the trophy. The French side are up against Besiktas in the last eight but should they successfully negotiate those two tricky encounters, they would arguably represent the only credible threat to Mourinho’s hopes of a return to Europe’s top table.
“I think Lyon are the obvious contenders to [challenge] United,” club legend Paul Scholes told Omnisport. “But, apart from that, I don’t see too many problems for them in that competition.”
OL’s performances in Europe have certainly been eye-catching.
In the Champions League, only a vintage performance from Gianluigi Buffon prevented the French club from eliminating Juventus, who are now on the verge of the semi-finals after a stunning demolition of Barcelona on Tuesday night. Since dropping to the Europa League, they smashed past AZ 10-2 on aggregate before eliminating a much-fancied Roma team in the last 16.
Led by Alexandre Lacazette – a young, in-demand striker who may well find himself pitted against the Premier League’s finest on a weekly basis next season – this is a team with goals to spare.
OL boast a vibrant attacking line bristling with offensive potential. Lacazette is, of course, the headline act, but figures such as Mathieu Valbuena and Nabil Fekir should not be overlooked.
Both are players of international quality, and had it not been for a serious knee injury, Fekir might have attained star status by now. That has held him back somewhat, but he remains capable of magic. Meanwhile, Rachid Ghezzal and Maxwel Cornet are not to be underestimated either.
United may have eased past Saint-Etienne relatively unscathed, but the make-up of their local rivals means that they would face a very different test against the Parc OL side – a team better suited to exposing the weaknesses of Mourinho’s team. Where Sainte offered only stoicism, Lyon can produce flair and excitement in abundance.
Even looking beyond the forwards, there is a midfield base that is broadly undervalued by those outside of French football. It is from here that captain Maxime Gonalons, the spiritual heartbeat of the team, disrupts opponents, but box-to-box midfielder Corentin Tolisso has established himself as one of the hot properties of the next transfer market.
Tolisso has perhaps been Lyon’s outstanding player this season, eclipsing even Lacazette, and was recently rewarded with a France debut, in part generated by the absence of Paul Pogba. He turned down the chance to move to Napoli last year but has been linked with Juventus, Barcelona and Arsenal this time around and has said that Italy and England are of particular interest to him.
“I didn’t think I was ready to leave and discover something else,” he admitted to RMC. “I know that staying was a very good decision and I had spoken to the staff and my family. This year, we’ll see what I happens, who wants me, and I’ll do the same – I’ll speak to those close to me and I’ll take the best decision.”
OL are certainly not unbeatable, however. They lie fourth in Ligue 1 for a reason and that is due to their soft underbelly. An inability to find a strong working partnership in the heart of their defence has hampered them all season, with Nicolas Nkoulou proving one of the great transfer flops of the season anywhere in Europe.
Furthermore, this is a young side with a fragile mentality. There is no aura of invincibility or even particular confidence around OL. In a recent league match against Rennes, their opponents were reduced to 10 men after five minutes and, despite taking the lead, they cracked late on and were somewhat fortunate to escape with a 1-1 draw.
Like United, there is much at stake in the Europa League for Lyon. There is no prospect of them battling their way onto the Ligue 1 podium, so all of their eggs are in this one basket.
Howver, it is about more than Champions League qualification for them, too; it is also about retaining their best players.
“I can assure you that if we win the Europa League, Lacazette and Tolisso will not leave. They would not have the desire to go,” president Jean-Michel Aulas told RMC last week.
The irony is, of course, if Lacazette and Tolisso prove their mettle by leading Lyon to European glory, the interest in them will only intensify. Thus, OL better make the most of their talents while they still can – and that means proving once again that they are capable of mixing it with the likes of United.