French clubs in Europa League action on Thursday looking to advance to the quarter-finals of the Europa League after PSG fell at the last-16 stage in the Champions League
Lyon and Marseille lag behind PSG in France, but can overtake them in Europe
France’s Ligue 1 is back in its usual pattern. They know the drill: Paris Saint-Germain open up a lead at the top of the table that looks ominous by January. By March they look destined for the title. The trend was interrupted, gallantly, last season by Monaco, but normal service has been emphatically resumed in 2017/18.
But there’s another March phenomenon, one that the chasing pack in the French top flight hope may also become a habit. It’s the moment when, in the sphere that matters most to the financially generous backers of PSG, the ambitious club from the capital get overtaken in Europe by compatriots.
It happened last year, when, with PSG unceremoniously dumped out of the Uefa Champions League when Barcelona, setting a record for a comeback, reversed a four-goal first-leg deficit in Catalonia, while Monaco breezed on to the semi-finals and, in the Europa League, Lyon also reached the last four.
Now, with PSG surveying the damage to self-esteem of their last-16 defeat by Real Madrid, two French clubs aim to step into the last eight of a major European competition, and are quietly nursing dreams of winning it.
Lyon host CSKA Moscow on Thursday with a 1-0 advantage and every motivation to make this competition their priority between now and the season’s end. The final will be staged, on May 16, at their own home ground; their pursuit of a place in Ligue 1’s top three – which, under new Uefa formatting, represents France’s reduced number of possible entrants into the Champions League – is stuttering, with five points separating fourth-placed Lyon from next-best Marseille.
Europe has been what Lyon have leaned on in worrying times domestically. Since defeating PSG in mid-January, they have won just one Ligue 1 match in their last seven, hence one of the banners displayed recently at Stade OL, which translated to Englush read “Europe can hide our misery for one season, but not two.”
It sounds a like a threat, and with manager Bruno Genesio being booed by sections of the support-base, he knows his credit is running short. His reputation grew last season with a stirring run to the last four of the Europa League, high on goals and thrill.
Ajax then brought an even more effective spirit of youthful adventure to bear on Lyon in the semi-final. The club finished fourth in the league, and in the summer sold, for combined fees not far short of €100 million (Dh454m), Alex Lacazette – to Arsenal – and Corentin Tolisso, to Bayern Munich. Lyon’s justified fame as an excellent school for burgeoning talent is the basis of their internal economy, but fans will never feel entirely comfortable with the annual departure of their best players.
The next young lion of Lyon in line for substantial offers from elsewhere will likely be Nabil Fekir, 24, whose absence against CSKA with a knee injury is a setback, although Genesio hopes that a forward line that mixes youth with worldliness – Memphis Depay, signed from Manchester United, has had a strong European campaign, Betrand Traore, signed from Chelsea was a finalist last season while on loan at Ajax, while Mariano, signed from Real Madrid, is the club’s joint top scorer in Ligue 1, with Fekir, on 16 goals – can supplement Lyon’s first-leg advantage.
Marseille, meanwhile, are in Spain, where they will trust in experience to guide them through the examination of San Mames, the Athletic Bilbao cauldron to which they take a 3-1 lead from the first leg. Dimitri Payet, the captain, brought his savvy to bear in the first leg, with a goal and then the cross for Lucas Ocampos to register OM’s third strike of the tie. Payet has been in decisive form, with four goals and eight assists in the last two months.
Marseille have the scent of a European run that would make PSG, their chief rivals, envious. “Europe is always important to this club,” said Rudi Garcia, reminding that only one Ligue 1 member has ever lifted the European Cup - Marseille, fully 26 years ago.
But he, like Genesio will still have in the back of his mind the key domestic battle awaiting him on Sunday: That’s the two Olympiques, Marseille and Lyon, head to head at the Stade Velodrome, perhaps Lyon’s last realistic chance of a top-three finish.