mazing in midfield,” said Le Parisien; “At 20, we could hardly expect more from such a match,” raved L’Équipe; France Football suggested that Maxence Caqueret was “inexhaustable.” Even the normally taciturn Rudi Garcia, whose reign at Lyon has been too often marked by fissures in the dressing room and questionable choices in both tactics and personnel, was unstinting in his praise. “He is mature despite his young age,” said Garcia. “He is carefree. He plays not for himself, but to make the team better. Everyone is to be congratulated, but this kid is especially to be congratulated.”
Garcia was faced with several difficult decisions before Lyon took on Juventus for a place in the Champions League quarter-finals. Having won the home leg of the tie 1-0 in February, he could have been tempted to stick with the same formula. But the return to fitness of Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Memphis Depay – as well as the departure of Martin Terrier, who played for Lyon in the first leg but joined Rennes last month, meant he needed to introduce some changes.
The return of Depay proved vital, the Dutchman scoring a crucial away goal in Turin with a Panenka penalty. It was his sixth goal in as many matches in the Champions League this season. Only Robert Lewandowski and Erling Haaland have scored more. Reine-Adélaïde also played an important part for Lyon as they made it through on away goals, the former Arsenal midfielder adding an extra dimension off the bench as he helped Lyon retain possession late on.
In it was in midfield, though, where Garcia’s instincts shone brightest. Lucas Tousart, who scored Lyon’s goal against Juventus in the first leg, left the club for Hertha Berlin at the start of July, so Garcia picked Maxence Caqueret to play alongside Bruno Guimarães and Houssem Aouar in midfield – the same trio he selected for the Coupe de la Ligue final last Friday night. Guimarães did not play as well as he had done in the first leg against Juve and, even though Aouar won Lyon’s penalty and showed good creative instincts throughout, it was Caqueret who truly shone.
Picking Caqueret to play in such a big game was a risk for Garcia – especially because it meant leaving €50m worth of midfield talent on the bench. Reine-Adélaïde is Lyon’s club’s record signing and Thiago Mendes was a pivotal figure in Lille’s brilliant form last season, yet both were passed over for Caqueret, a 20-year-old academy product. Caqueret had delivered an authoritative performance against PSG in the cup final but that game was not much more than a glorified friendly. PSG were not at full strength, with Kylian Mbappé injured and both Ángel Di María and Mauro Icardi well below their best.
Garcia also took a calculated risk during the Juventus game, when he decided to take off Aouar and leave Caqueret on the pitch alongside Reine-Adélaïde and Guimarães. It shows just how rapidly and how complete the youngster’s ascent has been. Caqueret had not started a league match until November but the team’s fixture congestion and the long-term absences of Reine-Adélaïde and Depay gave him more chances. When Lyon signed Guimarães from Brazilian club Athletico Paranaense for €25m in January it looked as if those chances might dry up for Caqueret, especially after the Brazilian put in an inspirational performance in the first leg of this tie.
However, with Tousart no longer at the club, Guimarães has been asked to play in a deeper role. This shift left a space available for a player who can knit together the team’s defence and attack, offer Lyon a threat on the counterattack and keep possession by being strong on the ball. Caqueret showed he can do all of these things and more. He snapped into tackles and made life difficult for Miralem Pjanic and Adrien Rabiot, who could scarcely put a foot on the ball without interruption.
Caqueret’s passing, too, is rapidly becoming one of his strong suits. At times it seemed as if his speed of thought was simply too much for his own teammates. On more than one occasion, he made a pass that almost urged its target to run that much faster to latch on to it. He plays as if he understand his own role and his manager’s tactics perfectly and, on top of that, he showed focus, workrate and his not-inconsiderable technical gifts.
The oft-maligned Garcia also deserved credit. Not only did he show bravery in picking Caqueret but also in his selection of Karl Toko Ekambi instead of Moussa Dembélé. Toko Ekambi had impressed as a substitute against PSG last week but Dembélé is the club’s top scorer this season and he had started every match in this competition save the trip to Leipzig under Sylvinho. It was a bold decision for Garcia to prioritise the pace and pressing ability of Toko Ekambi. It worked. During the cup final it looked as if Dembélé and Depay were on different wavelengths but Toko Ekambi’s ability to play on the right when necessary meant that Depay and Aouar had more space. For one night at least, Garcia got it right.
It has been a difficult season for Lyon and their failure to qualify for Europe will lead to plenty of dissatisfaction from fans next season, particularly if Aouar, Depay and Moussa Dembélé leave the club. The backs-to-the-wall mentality that worked against Juventus is unlikely to get much traction when Ligue 1 restarts in a fortnight but, for now, it is job done for the manager. Beating Juventus and taking Lyon into the quarter-finals of the Champions Legaue – where they will play Manchester City on Saturday night – is a great achievement. It may be temporary respite for Garcia but he should enjoy it.
And the plaudits should also go to Caqueret for his mature and scintillating performance in Turin. Considered one for the future when the season started, he is now one for the present. No matter the result in Saturday’s quarter-final, there will likely come a time when Lyon’s fans talk about this match not in terms of the historic achievement of beating Juventus, but as the night when they found their next idol.