One year is long – far too long – to be out of the Champions League. Fans have to settle for Thursday night football, players look to move away for more glamorous nights, and most importantly, Olympique Lyonnais’ coffers weep quietly.
It’s fair to say that Lady Luck has smiled upon Lyon in recent Champions League campaigns, though in true Lyonnais fashion, they struggled to capitalize. This time, the draws brought mixed fortunes for Genesio’s side.
Even before the first pot was drawn, it was obvious that OL would be clashing heads with European giants. Paris Saint-Germain being drawn into group C only confirmed that OL’s opponents would be behemoths. The question then was who Lyon would have to knock out to make the final stage.
In the end, OL was pitted against Manchester City, Shakhtar Donetsk and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. It could have been easier, but it could also have been much more difficult. With three comparable clubs in attendance, the race for second place is a tight one. However, it’s the first place that is compromised, courtesy of the top seed – Manchester City.
Pep, Meet Pep
Years and years of training against shadily-funded clubs are still unlikely to be enough for OL to edge out Manchester City. The English champion dominated domestically, and it is hardly the kind of team to drop points against OL.
The French club’s chances will hinge on a strong defensive display to counter against City’s offensive armada. Admittedly, defense is not one of Lyon’s strong points, but if OL doesn’t find a way to break down their opponents, then damage limitation will certainly weigh heavy on their mind.
The first matchday sees Jason Denayer travelling back to Manchester just a few weeks after signing with Lyon. In the lack of big name signings in defense, supporters will be hoping that Denayer does not only make the voyage, but also show the Citizens what they are missing.
If that’s not enough incentive to watch OL struggle, then the games against the English champions present a match-up between the master and the student. The Champions League will serve as the backdrop for a duel between Pep Guardiola and his Lyonnais counterpart and self-proclaimed admirer – Bruno ‘Pep’ Genesio.
Whereas top spot seems out of reach, the second qualification berth is up for grabs. De facto Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk’s main threat comes from the dreaded long trips to Donetsk. On the other hand, Hoffenheim is similar to Lyon in terms of quality, at least on the pitch.
Fight for the Rest
This Summer, Shakhtar has seen a long list of key players quit Ukraine. Emblematic captain Darijo Srna left for Italian side Cagliari. Then, last season’s top scorer with 30 goals, Facundo Ferreyra, left Shakhtar to join Benfica, and Bernard signed with Everton.
Although these players left on a free transfer, the Ukranians did make one operation that would make Jean-Michel Aulas proud – Fred’s €59M transfer to the other Mancunian club. Shakhtar Donetsk did not invest the fee on replacing the departures, but Júnior Moraes is filling in the goalscoring gap for the Ukrainians.
The fourth team in the group is Hoffenheim – a revelation in the German Bundesliga. Hoffenheim’s change in fortunes came about three seasons ago with the appointment of a young Julian Nagelsmann. The German coach took control of the team, saved it from relegation and gave it European football the next season.
It was a string of impressive performances that caught the eye of big clubs, including Real Madrid. More interestingly, Nagelsmann is younger than both of OL’s central defenders – Jeremy Morel and Marcelo – though he has achieved more than they ever have.
The only tradition more popular than Oktoberfest in Germany is the annual pillaging by Bayern Munich, and Hoffenheim did not avoid the plight. Key winger Serge Gnabry’s loan expired and returned to Munich, and Hoffenheim also lost Mark Uth.
The good news for OL is that like Shakhtar and OL themselves, the club did not spend much to replace the departures. However, they made smart signings in the form of Leonardo Bittencourt and ex-OL striker Ishak Belfodil.
Nevertheless, it takes more than other teams’ weaknesses to make an impact. Lyon’s European campaign is one that could come down to the little details and coaching decisions. After a long absence, can Genesio and his team butt heads with European giants?
Follow Nicholas on Twitter @MemoNick.