hile Lyon have run roughshod over most of their opponents in Ligue 1 of late, a trip to the Parc des Princes was another matter indeed. But they earned a 1-0 win over PSG on Sunday night, their first victory in the capital in 13 years, with their inspiration coming from unlikely sources.
Thomas Tuchel’s side started the season badly, losing to Lens and Marseille in their first two matches, but they have been looking more assured lately, particularly in the Champions League, where they won their last three games to top a difficult group and set up a last-16 tie against Barcelona. Even with Kylian Mbappé on the bench and Marquinhos injured, they presented a tougher challenge than the likes of Metz or Reims, who Lyon defeated easily in recent weeks.
Not only did Lyon come good when under the cosh at the Parc des Princes, they perhaps also took another step towards validating the oft-maligned transfer dealings of Juninho, particularly in the performances delivered by Karl Toko Ekambi, Lucas Paquetá, Thiago Mendes and Tino Kadewere.
Kadewere, who scored the only goal of the game, is the obvious hero. His pressing led to Presnel Kimpembe’s misplaced pass, from which Karl Toko Ekambi set him up to score. It was not all smooth sailing for Kadewere. The Zimbabwe international snatched at a few chances and fired over just before he found the back of the net, but his inclusion in the starting XI for what he called “his first big match in Europe” was more than justified. Given the form that Kadewere and Toko Ekambi – who was also signed last January – are showing, Lyon manager Rudi Garcia is currently leaving Moussa Dembélé, the club’s top goalscorer last season, on the bench.
Kadewere played on the right side of a 4-3-3, where his pace and tireless running were instrumental in helping to shackle Neymar, particularly when Lyon right-back Léo Dubois was booked late in the first half and became vulnerable to a red card. Toko Ekambi played on the other side of Memphis (who seemed far more content to pal around with Neymar than to get stuck in the match in the same manner as his teammates) and he offered more of the same.
Even at 28, his pace and endurance over 90 minutes remains an unassailable asset. He unselfishly set up Kadewere for the goal and, with three goals and four assists in his last four matches, he continues to improve. Toko Ekambi is now a far more complete player than the one who left Angers for Spain in 2018. His workrate and positional adaptability have busted the notion that Lyon need play with an orthodox striker.
For all that Kadewere and Toko Ekambi caught the eye, it was in midfield that Juninho’s prized assets really shone. Academy product Houssem Aouar offered the odd moment of genius amid a capable performance on the left of a central three, where he acted as a willing conduit between defence and attack. The other two midfielders – two Brazilians who did not come cheap – were the beating heart of Lyon’s success.
Thiago Mendes cost a near-club record fee of €22m when he was signed from Lille in the summer of 2019 but, given the dismissal of Sylvinho and the emergence of Bruno Guimarães, he was often not even included in the squad last season, with Aouar, Lucas Tousart and his countryman preferred. His performance at the Parc des Princes, despite his red card for a clumsy challenge on Neymar deep in stoppage time, continued what has been his renaissance at the base of Lyon’s midfield. His discipline remains an issue, but his ability to break down opposing attacks and bring the ball forward have been invaluable assets for Lyon this season. Guimarães has the determination necessary to be an ideal support system from which Aouar and Paquetá can spring.
His countryman, though, deserves even more praise. Paquetá joined Milan from Flamengo for nearly €40m in January 2019 but he was a non-entity in Serie A. He signed for Lyon in September for just €20m and, while his first steps at the club were tentative, he was superb against PSG. The 23-year-old showed an eye for a pass as well as being combative in a box-to-box role, evening outshining his opposite number Marco Verratti, the master of the position. Lyon are yet to lose a match in which Paquetá has started and that is no coincidence. His bustling energy and unselfish pressing will be a real boon to the team’s hopes of sustaining a title challenge.
Under Garcia, who was criticised for his seemingly negative tactics earlier in the season, Lyon have become a capable attacking force (only PSG and Lille have scored more goals in the league this season) but also defensively sound. There is still a whiff of opportunism to some of their play but – as this historic win in Paris shows – Garcia, Juninho and his players have proved that there is also considerably more than that.
Ligue 1 results
Ligue 1 results
Nice 0-1 Rennes Brest 2-1 Reims Lorient 3-0 Nîmes Nantes 1-1 Dijon Strasbourg 2-2 Metz Lille 2-1 Bordeaux PSG 0-1 Lyon Marseille 2-1 Monaco Lens 2-3 Montpellier St Etienne 0-0 Angers
• Rennes are still some way off the heights they hit last season but, as they lick their wounds after an ignominious exit from the Champions League, they can at least hope to be a force in the league again. A 1-0 win at Nice is hardly indicative of a bright future, but the return from injury of M’Baye Niang – their top scorer last season – is good news. He scored the only goal of the game at Nice as Julien Stephan’s side put in as enterprising a performance as they have delivered in some time. Their forthcoming opponents (including Marseille in midweek) should be wary of a seemingly refocused team.
• Montpellier also picked up three points at the weekend, winning 3-2 in a gruelling match against a challenging Lens side. Having won five of their last six matches (the only blemish coming against PSG last weekend when they were missing the influential Andy Delort), Montpellier are increasingly being rewarded for their positive play. The potential for a European finish becomes more palpable with every passing week.