x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hamdan Al Kamali finds a worthy proving ground in Lyon

Lyon's history of nurturing young talent means Al Kamali can have hope of making an impact in Ligue 1.

Hamdan Al Kamali, left, has joined Lyon on a loan deal from Al Wahda.
Hamdan Al Kamali, left, has joined Lyon on a loan deal from Al Wahda.

Hamdan Al Kamali's first experience of Olympique Lyonnais as an employee will have left him exhausted. And that is just from watching Lyon, along with transfixed television viewers across France, on Tuesday night, as a topsy-turvy League Cup semi-final teetered one way and then another, a cocktail of edge-of-the-seat twists and turns.

Al Kamali's new club eventually found their way, after 120 minutes at Lorient, into the final of the competition, to be staged in April.

The first Emirati footballer to land a professional contact with a leading European club will have learnt a great deal from what he saw in those two hours.

First, that Lyon have some concerns in the defence where he will hope to earn a place. L'Equipe, France's main sports newspaper, yesterday described "the heavy load of Lyon's defensive imbalances".

Leakiness in the positions in front of France's No 1 goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, has become a problem. In the league, Lyon are conceding at a rate of more than a goal a game and, although they sit fourth Ligue 1, eight points behind the leaders Paris Saint-Germain, no other side in the top half of the table has suffered more defeats than they have.

Against Lorient, following up a goalless first leg, Lyon fell 2-0 behind before pulling a goal back with 10 minutes left and then equalising in stoppage time to go on and win 4-2.

The experienced France full-back, Anthony Reveillere, had an anxious match. Next to him, the veteran Cris, Lyon's captain, had an even worse one. The centre-back was at fault for the first Lorient goal, while none of the back four looked particularly well placed when Lorient scored their second, leaving only 22 minutes, plus the crucial added-on period, for the visitors to launch their comeback.

In mitigation, Lyon are still missing, because of his involvement at the African Cup of Nations, one of the pillars of their back four. Bakary Kone, the young Burkina Faso central defender, arrived from second division Guingamp last summer, when Lyon were also pursuing Al Kamali as part of their search for a strong young stopper.

Kone began his top-flight career superbly, contributing goals as well as athleticism, authority and mobility in defence.

Remi Garde, the head coach, will only hope Kone, 23, can return from a chastening experience at the Nations Cup without too much damage to his confidence. Burkina Faso lost all three group games in Equatorial Guinea, and Kone scored a own goal.

John Mensah, the centre-half, has also been away in Africa, with Ghana. So on Tuesday, the 18-year-old Samuel Umtiti partnered Cris.

Lyon have high hopes of Umtiti, a graduate of the club's impressive youth system, but their strategists, led by Bernard Lacombe, the director of sport, know the squad is entering a period of transition. Cris is 34, Mensah, who is prone to injury, will turn 30 later this year.

Into this space Al Kamali, 22, will hope to find his niche, probably after a spell with the reserves. Adaptation is likely to take time. The French league is tough physically, as many newcomers to it observe, and probably more tactically nuanced than much of, say, the English Premier League.

Though Lyon have lost the pre-eminent status they enjoyed through the first decade of the new millennium, when they won seven successive championships from 2002 to 2008, they are a well-run club with a deservedly high reputation for advancing careers.

"There is stability there and it is a good place for younger players to be," said Gerard Houllier, the former Lyon head coach who guided the team to two of their league crowns.

Lacombe will certainly have identified Al Kamali as a potential long-term asset, even if the current deal bringing him to Lyon from Al Wahda is only a loan, with an option to buy.

Lyon's director of sport has sharp eyes for finding talent off the beaten track and his president, Jean-Michel Aulas, has expertise in buying players young and moving them on for large profits.

He has done so with such illustrious footballers as Edmilson and Eric Abidal (to Barcelona), Michael Essien and Florent Malouda (to Chelsea), Mahamadou Diarra and Karim Benzema (to Real Madrid), and the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa (Olympique Marseille, then Newcastle United), Jeremy Toulalan (Malaga) and Miralem Pjanic (Roma).

The UAE's highest-profile international fits the prototype Aulas likes, being deemed his country's outstanding player. He is at an age to improve. What he needs now is to show he can soon be stabilising that shaky Lyon defence.