Lyon find themselves among exulted company in the Champions League round of 16.
That’s not unusual for a side that turned winning Ligue 1 into an artform in the first decade of the millennium, during which they were quarter-final regulars in the competition, while even last season they offered Barcelona some resistance before eventually succumbing to the whims of Lionel Messi in a Camp Nou drubbing.
But this season it is different. This season, there can be no grounds for optimism as a double header with Juventus and serial Champions League winner Cristiano Ronaldo looms. Nothing, save perhaps Juve’s own comparative struggles – and the word comparative needs stressed – points to OL having a chance in this tie.
In the first last-16 to be monopolised by clubs from the Big 5 leagues, Lyon are undoubtedly the least qualified to go on and lift the title.
Indeed, if they are to negotiate this fixture, it would be a continuation of the trend of stunning shocks pervade by Manchester United against PSG and Liverpool versus Barcelona last season.
One of the factors weighing against the Ligue 1 side is the ongoing absence of talisman Memphis Depay, who has been missing since December with knee ligament damage. While his regular updates on social media suggest his recovery is going far better than could be anticipated, his return remains a distant prospect.
“He’s our Ronaldo,” former Roma boss Garcia told Corriere dello Sport last week. “Imagine Juve without Ronaldo. It would help the opposition in the defensive phase. It’s useless to put him in a cage if it just leaves space for Paulo Dybala or Gonzalo Higuain.”
Indeed, there is a strong argument to suggest that Memphis is actually more important to Lyon than Ronaldo is to the Turin side – at least with regards the Champions League this season.
The Dutchman has scored five of their nine goals in the competition, doing so with an impressive xG of 3.35. Along with PSG forward Mauro Icardi, he has been decisive in the tournament this season four times – twice as often as any other player.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, has thus far been eclipsed by club-mate Dybala in the scoring stakes and while there remains a chance that the Portuguese goes on a stellar run in the knockout rounds to finish as one of the competition’s leading marksmen, Lyon simply do not have another player of Memphis’ match-deciding pedigree to shoulder the burden his absence leaves.
He's our RonaldoLyon head coach, Rudi Garcia, on Memphis Depay
Beyond Memphis, Lyon have further injury issues. Jeff Reine-Adelaide, the former Arsenal youngster who had made a promising start in the Rhone Valley after a summer move from Angers, is another long-term injury victim, while starting left-back Youssouf Kone has been out since the start of December and France international right-back Leo Dubois is one reserve match and one first-team fixture back after a lay off of close to three months.
But OL’s issues are more deep set than a flurry of injury concerns.
Indeed, they date back to last summer, when the club sacked unpopular head coach Bruno Genesio. It was admitted at the time that a potentially painful transition period might be necessary, but this was botched and rookie boss Sylvinho was sacked as early as October following a run of one win from nine matches.
In came Rudi Garcia, a man who had been openly hostile towards Lyon in his previous role as Marseille boss, and their situation has barely budged.
While OL have progressed in the two domestic cups, they are seventh domestically, six points away from the European spots, have won only four of 12 league matches at home, and have only beaten one opponent in the top 10 in the table at the time of the fixture. Additionally, they are the only side without a point against the top five.
If progress has come in Europe, even a Lyon supporter with the sunniest disposition would have to admit that has come about more by luck that judgement.
They qualified with a mere eight points from Group G, having secured just a couple of wins. Half their points came against RB Leipzig, with one of those aforementioned victories coming in Germany courtesy of a couple of glaring defensive errors from their opponents, who otherwise outplayed them.
Given Garcia’s record in the Champions League, that should come as little surprise. In 28 matches at this level, he has won a mere five and has picked up on average 0.86 points per game, giving him the worst record of any coach who has overseen more than 20 fixtures in the competition’s history.
Unsurprisingly, this record has never previously been good enough to sample knockout football and it would be astonishing if it were good enough to extend their run on the continent this season beyond these two fixtures.