This article also appeared as part of the Ligue 1 review on Guardian Sport and GFFN.
PSG’s visit to Lyon wasn’t just about PSG and Lyon. For both sides, a free-wheeling Sunday night encounter foreshadowed respective Champions League knockout ties with Manchester United and Barcelona. Lyon, their youthful and exuberant forward line posed a similar threat for PSG as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's rejuvenated Manchester United will next week, while Paris’ superior quality, ability to dominate possession and fluid attacking quartet mark OL’s only domestic opportunity to test themselves again a force and a style comparable to Ernesto Valverde’s Spanish champions. Worryingly for Valverde and an infuriated Thomas Tuchel, exuberance won out.
Recently, assuming they’re played outside of Paris, meetings between France’s top sides have been dramatic. Neymar’s Classique dismissal, Monaco’s 6-1 mauling of Marseille and Memphis Depay’s later winning and ensuing tunnel brawl in the Olympico amid a host of enthralling encounters became pivotal plot points of the Ligue 1 season. Lyon in particular have developed a knack for bloodying the nose of their Parisien rivals at Parc OL, Sunday night was no different.
Lyon’s victory was their third in four home league games over Paris, a 2-1 scoreline might have been inflated further were it not for two outstanding goalkeeping displays. Alphonse Areola, rotation with Gianluigi Buffon continuing - both keepers attending the pre match presser, made a hat trick of cat-like first half saves, including a lightening double stop to halt Memphis Depay. It was PSG, however, who took an early lead as Julian Draxler robbed Houssem Aouar before inviting Angel Di Maria to stroke home.
Lyon however were comfortably on top for much of the first period and Areola’s omnipotence proved short lived as he stumbled under a cross leaving Moussa Dembele free to head home with half an hour gone. A clumsy Thiago Silva challenge on Dembele just after half time deservedly afforded Nabil Fekir the chance fire Lyon ahead from the spot before OL keeper Anthony Lopez took over. A strong upward hand to tip over a clean through Kylian Mbappe’s shot, which drew applause for the PSG forward, proved the games best save. Despite having the majority of the ball PSG were unable to create any further clear openings as the game wore on; their unbeaten league record ended.
Overall, Paris have evolved under Tuchel. A more tactically diverse, adaptable side have finally produced tangible European progress while their German coach has miraculously bred a sense of harmony even determination in an infamously cliquey and brittle group. Against Lyon however, a rare test, Tuchel’s impressive work started to slip. Thiago Silva has started to look like the inspirational defender and leader many outside France still assume he is but, as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial will note, here he seemed unnerved by Dembele’s movement. Julian Draxler’s recent majestic midfield displays have made him a candidate for Ligue 1 player of the season but, despite creating the goal, Draxler was pressed into errors and OL were able to shut down much of his previously exacting passing.
Without Neymar, who the club announced would miss 10 weeks with a foot issue, PSG were lacking much of the individual brilliance that they so often fallen back on. Reworking a team molded, whatever it’s mode, to fit around the Brazilian may take some doing before the journey to Manchester. Without his partner, Kylian Mbappe, accentuating a recent trend against tougher opposition, largely retreated to the fringes of the game rather than dominating as is required, despite flashes of brilliance. As Lyon proved, with Paris thin in midfield, their forwards isolated and their defense capable of mistakes (Silva isn’t alone) the Ligue 1 champions can be exposed by a pacey, aggressive and direct team. Solskjaer, who watched on from the stands alongside assistant Mike Phelan, may have just the team to repeat that trick.
In beating PSG, Lyon meanwhile again underlined their ability to upset a superior force. While they may also be susceptible to weaker teams themselves, successfully suffocated by Strasbourg, Rennes, Nice and Reims this season, their 2-1 win at Manchester City (arguably now a little less impressive a feat after Crystal Palace and Newcastle emulated them) as part of a undefeated Champions League group stage run underlines Bruno Genesio’s ability to set up his team to ambush more expansive opponents. In an open game, Depay, Fekir, Dembele and Bertrand Traore exploited space and without some last ditch interceptions or Traore slipping, often threatened to overload Paris in transition.
Although Sunday night’s game might breed confidence for Manchester United and Lyon, arguably both underdogs, PSG’s October 5-0 win over Lyon at the Parc des Princes offers a caveat. While their traditional rivals have been able to unsettle PSG on occasion of late, all those instances have come outside Paris. PSG are an entirely different proposition at home, effortlessly dismantling all comers domestically - Guingamp’s league cup win an aberration. The 4-0 home win that preceded the remontada at the Nou Camp in 2017 remains especially illustrative of how difficult it is to build momentum in Paris but how easily PSG can collapse when pressurized away. Despite Tuchel’s progress in this area, a deliberately reserved away display at Marseille in winning 2-0 was almost practice, mental strength remains an issue.
Barcelona, outwardly prioritising the Champions League, remain clear favourites against OL but an aggressive and direct Lyon with a record of upsetting the odds look to be increasingly slippery opponents. Meanwhile, despite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Manchester United posing a similar threat, Tuchel mentioned he ‘wasn’t worried’ about the United game. But based on his evening in Lyon, perhaps he should be.
by Adam White