Lyon v Juventus
Champions League – Wednesday, 26th February – 20:00 GMT – Groupama Stadium
The weekend’s game against SPAL was perhaps more dramatic than it needed to be, but the switch back to 4-3-3 seems to have come at the right time as key players are starting to hit their stride and Juve looked more in control than in recent weeks.
By all accounts, the mister favoured 4-3-3, tried it in the early stages of the season, got results, lost players to injury, reverted to 4-3-1-2, tried to fit the squad as best he could to make his ideas a reality, hit a ‘slump’ (if you can really call a couple of losses a slump) got players back from injury, reverted to what he knows and loves and Juve looked all the better for it. That might be oversimplifying things but recent performances lacked vigour or excitement, despite the final results, so to see Juve inject a little spark into their game was both timely and appreciated.
Perhaps key to switching things was moving Juan Cuadrado higher up the pitch where he’s been more hit than miss, especially with his deliveries and the way he’s worked alongside Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo. The injury to Miralem Pjanic allowed for Rodrigo Bentancur to drop in front of the defence where he’s looked all the more comfortable, dictating the play while providing a good shield for the defence and looking more energetic than Miralem Pjanic who was due a break.
It might be a small sample size and perhaps not the best opposition, but the team have looked more in control in recent games. Sarri seems to have settled on using La Joya as more of a false nine who drops deep to create for those around him with Aaron Ramsey being pushed back to playing as an ‘eight’ after his struggles behind the attack. SPAL may not be the most heart of opponents given they are struggling in a relegation scrap, Ramsey and Dybala did fare pretty well and perhaps most importantly, the Welshman in particular looked more at ease as a box-to-box type, working hard at both ends of the pitch and being rewarded with a goal.
To change things again now would seem counter-productive, especially as the infirmary is emptying and the squad is almost back to full fitness with Merih Demiral the only notable absentee. The team seems more set up to play 4-3-3, even with the questionable fitness of Douglas Costa who can’t remain fit for two matches in a row. The Brazilian looked ideally placed to make this season his own playing out on the wing, but Cuadrado has done fine there for now and the formation as whole seems to play to the strengths of the majority of the team, especially in the midfield.
With a full contingent and the return of Costa, Pjanic, Higuain and Chiellini, Juve are inevitably favourites for the tie and their better performances have arguably come in the Champions League this season. They’ve been quietly efficient, going undefeated throughout the entire group stage and probably should have made it 6 out of 6, but for the late slip up against Atletico. The focus of the team seems to be more geared towards Europe and while the league has become more of a contest this season, there’s no doubt where their priorities lie, even though they’ll never admit it.
Lyon have been decimated by injuries and while their form has been up and down, Juve would be wise not to underestimate them. Complacency has cost the Bianconeri dearly in recent years, be it in the knockouts or the final itself, so it’s reassuring to hear Leonardo Bonucci talk of the players being determined, focused and perhaps most importantly, that the game has to be won on the pitch. It seems an obvious thing to say, but the stand in skipper was at pains to point out that the team have learned valuable lessons from their exit last season against an up and coming Ajax side that bears a passing resemblance to this young crop of Lyon players.
Speaking ahead of the game, Sarri was cautiously optimistic in his pre-game presser, emphasising the importance of having a full squad to choose from again:
“In Italy, we have the obligation and responsibility to win. In Europe, we are among the 10 teams with this objective. It isn’t easy to get into Italian football. Rabiot is growing a lot. He leaves us with the feeling that he still has something more to offer. His journey is improving, and we are very proud. Lyon is a technical team with elements of acceleration and physicality. They are dangerous team; therefore, we need to play well. We have a varied midfield in terms of the level of characteristics. Tomorrow’s game is difficult to interpret dynamism is needed from one of our three midfielders. Cristiano Ronaldo is a player who is admired everywhere in the world. His numbers speak for themselves. He is a player who goes above and beyond and he is in a good physical and mental condition. It is very important that Sami Khedira and Douglas Costa are back in the group. It’s nice to know you can rely on them at this stage of the season.”
Szczesny is certain to start in goal with Danilo and Alex Sandro on the flanks and while Chiellini is fit, he doesn’t have 90 minutes in him yet so we may see him start with De Ligt coming in later, or vice-versa. Pjanic may get the nod in midfield, given it’s a game against his old team, with Ramsey and Blaise Matuidi to either side. Higuain is in the squad but Dybala is more like to start with Ronaldo and Cuadrado out wide.
4-3-3: Szczesny; Danilo, De Ligt, Bonucci, Sandro; Ramsey, Bentancur, Matuidi; Cuadrado, Dybala, Ronaldo.
Merih Demiral (knee)
4-2-3-1: Lopes; Tete, Andersen, Denayer, Marcal; Tousart, Mendes; Traore, Aouar, Terrier; Dembele
Depay, Kone, Reine-Adélaïde, Solet, Rafael , Dubois