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European Football Weekend Round-Up & Power Rankings By Zach Lowy

Zach Lowy rounds up the weekend’s action in European football, from underperforming managers to youngsters you must take note of.

Last season saw various European teams end lengthy title droughts and reclaim their spot atop their domestic leagues. Sporting ended 19 years of Porto and Benfica hegemony by winning the Primeira Liga title, whilst Lille shocked Paris Saint-Germain and won their first title in a decade. Atlético de Madrid won their first Liga title in seven years, Rangers put an end to Celtic’s domestic dominance, whilst Inter claimed their first Scudetto since José Mourinho was in charge.

This season, things are reverting to the norm across the continent. Just like in 2020, Porto are closing in on a domestic double, whilst Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain have already claimed their league titles. Either Liverpool (the 2020 Premier League winners) or Manchester City (the winner of three of the last four Premier League titles) will claim the domestic crown in England’s top-flight, whilst other perennial winners such as Celtic and Zenit are set to taste more silverware.

The European Competitions

Such are the uncanny similarities between 2021/22 and 2019/20 in the domestic leagues, it would seem befitting for the European competitions to follow suit. Instead, they couldn’t be any more different – Manchester United, Inter, Sevilla and Shakhtar were the four semifinalists in the 2019/20 Europa League; West Ham, Eintracht Frankfurt, Rangers and RB Leipzig are the semifinalists of this year’s edition.

Leipzig found themselves in the final four of the 2019/20 Champions League, thrashing Tottenham Hotspur before beating Atlético Madrid in the single-leg quarterfinal in Lisboa, only to end up losing 3-0 to Paris Saint-Germain. PSG have been unable to return to the Champions League Final since losing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in 2020, with Mauricio Pochettino’s side losing to Manchester City in last year’s semifinals and suffering elimination in the Round of 16 by a Karim Benzema-inspired Real Madrid. They would, however, reap revenge against Hansi Flick’s Bayern, with the defending champions falling to PSG in the quarterfinals before losing to Unai Emery’s Villarreal in this year’s quarterfinals.

Lyon’s Decline

From the four sides, however, no team has suffered quite as swift of a decline as Lyon. It has been less than two years since Rudi Garcia’s side defeated Juventus and Manchester City before losing to Bayern, and yet, if you asked the average football fan in a bar trivia night to name the semifinalists in Lisboa, few would recall Lyon. Unlike many other teams that have made an impressive underdog run in Europe in recent years such as Ajax or Monaco, Lyon’s Cinderella run was not coupled with domestic success. Les Gones would go on to finish seventh in the league and miss out on European football for the first time in 24 years.

OL’s Poor League Form

After keeping hold of the bulk of their squad and bringing in the likes of Lucas Paquetá and Tino Kadewere, Les Gones’ form improved in the following season as they finished fourth, but it wasn’t enough to keep Rudi Garcia from losing his job. Under new manager Peter Bosz, Lyon have impressed in European competition, having topped their Europa League group with a near-perfect record before beating Porto and losing in the quarterfinals to West Ham. In domestic competition, they have been less than convincing – OL currently sit seventh with three games remaining, level on points with Lens in eighth. They are four points above Nantes and defending champions Lille, two points behind Strasbourg, and five points behind fifth-place Nice. If Nice beat Nantes in the Coupe de France Final on Saturday, sixth place will secure passage to the Europa Conference League playoffs. If not, only the top five will qualify for European competition.

Lyon will be taking on Nantes on May 14 in addition to Metz, who sit rooted to the bottom of the table and are all but confirmed to be relegated after throwing away a two-goal lead and drawing 2-2 at Montpellier. They will end their season with a trip to Clermont Foot, currently two points above the relegation play-off spot in their first-ever Ligue 1 campaign. The last meeting between these two sides saw Moussa Dembélé grab a brace within 21 minutes and Lucas Paquetá add another before halftime, only for a brace in the final 10 minutes from Elbasan Rashani to give Pascal Gastien’s side a tense draw at the Groupama.

In many ways, that draw has set the tone for this season. Lyon’s 59 goals scored is bettered only by Rennes (77) and Paris Saint-Germain (79), whilst their 45 goals conceded is unparalleled in the top half. They have conceded 3+ goals to the likes of Angers, Nice, and Rennes (twice), and it is undoubtedly their lack of defensive stability that has been their Achilles heel under Peter Bosz. The Dutch manager replaced Garcia in the summer after a two-year spell at Bayer Leverkusen, and so far, his experiment has gone the same away as his time at Dortmund, with a perhaps overenthusiastic attacking approach leaving his side vulnerable on the counter.

Losing Key Players

After losing 3-0 at home to West Ham to bow out at the quarterfinals stage, Les Gones have since thrashed relegation battlers Bordeaux 6-1 before losing 2-1 to Brest – the same team that sold their creative talisman Romain Faivre to Lyon in January to replace the outgoing Bruno Guimarães. They followed that up with a 5-2 win against Montpellier before beating Marseille 3-0 at the Stade Vélodrome, their first clean sheet since March 20.

From the team that defeated Manchester City in Lisboa in 2020, only one-third of the defence remains: Fernando Marçal has wound up at Wolves whilst Marcelo Guedes is now at Bordeaux, with Jason Denayer the only centre back still at the club. Maxwel Cornet, who opened the scoring against City, has since gone to Burnley, whilst Bruno Guimarães moved to Newcastle in January. Memphis Depay, who willed Lyon to European qualification last season with 22 goals and 12 assists, has since moved to Barcelona on a free transfer.

Marseille v Lyon

After Kevin de Bruyne equalized in the 69th minute, Garcia brought on Moussa Dembélé for Memphis, who would proceed to score a late brace to send Pep Guardiola’s side packing. Dembélé started up top for OL in the Olimpico, playing ahead of Karl Toko Ekambi, Lucas Paquetá and 19-year-old forward Bradley Barcola. Houssem Aouar partnered Thiago Mendes in the double pivot, whilst Anthony Lopes retained his place in goal.

None of the three players who started in both the City and Marseille matches were defenders — Bosz picked a back four featuring Chelsea loanee Emerson Palmieri and 18-year-old right-back Malo Gusto, whilst Jérôme Boateng partnered Castello Lukeba – 14 years his junior – in central defence.

Marseille came close to snatching an early lead on several occasions with Dembélé nearly conceding a penalty after blocking a cross from Gerson with his armpit and Arkadiusz Milik missing from close range on two occasions. After a first half of Marseille domination, Lyon took the lead in the 55th minute as Emerson’s free-kick deflected off the wall and into the path of Dembélé, who beat Pau López to the ball but was unable to find the back of the net; instead, the ball met the feet of the teenage Lukeba, who fired in from an empty net. They would double their lead 20 minutes later as Malo Gusto raced down the right flank before firing in a cross for Dembélé to head home, with Toko Ekambi adding the third and final goal in the 88th minute.

Castello Lukeba has been a rare bright spot in what has otherwise been a gloomy campaign at the Groupama, with the Lyon academy product becoming the youngest player to score in an Olimpico since Karim Benzema in October 2006 and producing an impressive display in central defence, quick to cut out danger, apt at reading passes and anticipating attacks before they can reach their full potential. It is clear that he still needs a few more seasons in Lyon to iron out his flaws before making a big move, but between him and Gusto, Lyon may just have the making of a very fine defensive spine for years to come.

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    Zach Lowy is the co-creator of Breaking The Lines (@BTLVid) and a freelance soccer journalist for various websites such as BET Central, Soccer Laduma and Hudl Analysis. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and is the host of the Cortalinhas podcast, a weekly podcast that discusses Portuguese football. Zach has accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in football and has written about various subjects for BET Central ranging from Barcelona's financial difficulties to the 'lost generation' of South Africa's Amajita class of 2009.

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