With 53 minutes to play and their opponent a man down in last night’s Champions League semi-final first leg in Munich, Lyon spurned the chance of a lifetime simply by failing to react. Franck Ribéry’s dismissal handed the visitors the initiative in a huge and unignorable way, but rather than reacting, Claude Puel’s side froze.
Ribéry’s sending off ultimately served only to highlight Lyon’s lack of tactical flexibility. Set up to be compact and strike on the counter-attack, as they did so magnificently against Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bordeaux earlier in the competition, when initiative and imagination were required they were found lacking.
Puel failed to do anything to exploit Ribéry’s absence. When Lyon returned to the field after the interval they did so in the same 4-1-4-1 they had adopted at the start of the match, with Lisandro López and the wide players César Delgado and Ederson working hard but with no-one taking a grip of the game in the middle of the pitch. Miralem Pjanić made some tentative forward forays but just nine minutes into the second half Jérémy Toulalan, unfortunately, saw red and the chance was gone.
Bayern, spared, sensed the momentum swinging back in their favour and they, crucially, capitalised by making changes. With Anatoliy Tymoshchuk anchoring the midfield after coming on for Ivica Olić, Bastian Schweinsteiger took it upon himself to push forward in support of Thomas Müller and Louis van Gaal profited from the change in tempo by introducing Mario Gómez to provide a focal point for the Bayern attack.
Forced to drop Maxime Gonalons back into central defence for Toulalan and with two wide players still on the pitch, Lyon allowed themselves to be forced back by Schweinsteiger’s forward raids through the middle and the goal seemed almost inevitable. That it came from Arjen Robben easily shrugging off Delgado, cutting onto his left foot and shooting from distance – as he has done time and time and time again in his career – was equally predictable. That Gonalons should duck beneath the flight of the ball rather than try to block it was inexplicable.
Bayern won because when they got the momentum they used it and because Schweinsteiger (31) had the bravery – and the faith in Tymoshchuk (44) - to take the game to the opposition. The hosts’ shape in the second half was a purposeful 4-2-3 (left), the visitors’ an aimless, hollow 4-4-1:
More damning even than Puel’s failure to react was the fact Lyon managed just a single shot on goal to Bayern’s 11 in the second half and conceded the initiative to their opponents to such a comprehensive extent that they enjoyed just 27 percent of possession despite the huge golden carrot of an away goal dangling above Hans-Jörg Butt’s goal.
“When both sides had the same number of players we’d already run an awful lot in the first half and we couldn’t hold onto the ball high enough up the pitch,” said Puel. “At that point we didn’t have enough skill to threaten them. We tried to be courageous and keep the score as it was.
Bayern applied pressure from the beginning and controlled things very well.”
“I did not think that we would win 1-0 with Ribéry getting a red card,” was van Gaal’s perhaps slightly incredulous assessment. ”But even when we were a man down we were the dominant side. We created more chances when we had ten men against 11. When it was then ten against ten I sent on Mario Gómez to score a goal quickly. We created many chances and, although we only scored one goal, that is good.”
The curious consolation for the vanquished is that, of the four Lyon teams that have made it to the Champions League quarter-finals, this is without doubt the weakest. It is inconceivable that a team containing players such as Mahamadou Diarra, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Juninho and Karim Benzema would have retreated so meekly in similar circumstances. Aside from a world-class goalkeeper and centre forward, Lyon 2010 boast little more than industry on the flanks, diligence in defence and promise (Gonalons is 21, Pjanić 20) in central midfield.
They were not helped by the injuries (to Jean-Alain Boumsong and Mathieu Bodmer) that forced Toulalan to step into central defence, nor by the zealous refereeing that saw him receive a yellow card for a fairly innocuous foul on Schweinsteiger, but they did not help themselves either by leaving Michel Bastos and Sidney Govou on the bench at a time when they were crying out for pace and directness.
Qualifying for the last four for the first time in their history was a memorable watershed moment and at 1-0, the tie is still in the balance. Puel will know, however, that it could have been very different.
Postscript: Speaking two days after the match, Lisandro criticised Lyon for their defensive mindset.
“It’s clear. The team must change their attitude and their mentality for the next match on Tuesday,” he said. “We didn’t play enough when we had the ball. We were waiting in our own half too much. At 11 against 11 we had chances to attack more but we didn’t hurt our opponent enough and definitely not at 10 against 11. You saw a team that played too defensively. We have to correct the tactics and show a more positive spirit to go for victory.”