PSG’s 2-1 win over St Étienne in the Coupe de France final last weekend was a somewhat dour affair and their victory over Lyon in the Coupe de la Ligue final on Friday night was also far from the prettiest evening of football. PSG were without Kylian Mbappé, who had suffered an ankle injury against St Étienne, and looked somewhat disjointed. Ángel Di María was uncharacteristically off the boil; Mauro Icardi was seemingly hampered by an injury that led to him being substituted after an hour; and even Neymar struggled to have an impact. It was not the greatest game, finishing goalless before PSG won on penalties, but the occasion at the Stade de France will have served both sides well as they prepare for the return of the Champions League.
Lyon’s 3-5-2 formation often looked more like a 4-5-1, with Memphis not close enough to striker Moussa Dembélé. Despite the inclusion of the usually forward-thinking Houssem Aouar, Lyon’s midfield was as combative as they have been under Rudi Garcia, with both Bruno Guimarães and Maxence Caqueret snapping into tackles. Lucas Tousart returned to his parent club Hertha Berlin in July, leaving Lyon without a natural holding player, yet they showed the same bite and vigour that helped them beat Juventus 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie – a two-legged tie that began five months ago and will conclude in Turin on Friday night.
It would be easy to criticise Garcia for being too negative against PSG in the final, but his approach worked well. Lyon, playing in their first competitive match after a long lay-off, kept PSG at bay. Their three-man defence was stellar, with Marçal continuing his evolution into a capable option on the left and even the much-maligned Joachim Andersen barely putting a foot wrong when called upon from the bench.
A word should be given for Anthony Lopes, too. The Lyon goalkeeper has been criticised in the past for his volatile distribution, but he is among the best shot-stoppers in France. He proved that again on Friday, making half a dozen fine saves, including tipping a header from Neymar over the bar and stretching low to his left to deny Di María in added time. He did not save any penalties in the shootout, which PSG won after Bertrand Traoré failed to score for Lyon, but his man-of-the-match performance was the reason his team made it that far.
If Lyon are this stingy against Juventus, they will surely reach the Champions League quarter-finals. Having kept a clean sheet in the first leg, they know that a goalless draw in Turin would be enough. If they manage to score an away goal, the pressure will start to mount on Maurizio Sarri’s champions.
Lyon also had their opportunities to score. Moussa Dembélé and Maxwel Cornet scuffed chances and Keylor Navas was forced into a few saves. Lyon wanted to win the trophy – especially as it would have given them European football next season – but at least the game served as a dress rehearsal for their forthcoming challenges in the Champions League. Having kept PSG at arm’s length for 120 minutes, Garcia and his squad should be encouraged.
What, then, of PSG? Neymar had his moments of brilliance throughout, forcing Lopes into several fine saves, but Marco Verratti was PSG’s best performer. Surprisingly, he had been left out against Sainté, with Leandro Paredes preferred, but Verratti was back in the side against Lyon and seemed to be everywhere, providing creative impetus as well as his usual dogged defensive play. He was effectively given a free role, with Marquinhos drafted into the base of midfield and Idrissa Gueye sitting deeper to break up play. Verratti helped PSG going forward, while also using his mobility and defensive knowhow to control the game and suffocate Lyon’s breaks.
The cup final was also good preparation for PSG, who face Atalanta in the Champions League quarter-finals next Wednesday. Lyon do not carry the same attacking threat as the Italian side, but in Depay and Aouar they possess brilliant individuals who are capable of turning a match by themselves. Keeping things tight against a Sainté side short of individual talent is one thing, but Thomas Tuchel knew his team had to be disciplined to keep a clean sheet against Lyon. In the first half, Les Gones showed they could give as good as they got, fizzing a few chances just wide, notably from Denayer and Memphis.
PSG looked wobbly at set pieces at times, but the fact that a defence featuring the callow Mitchell Bakker at left-back and Layvin Kurzawa as a makeshift right-back did not concede was a testament to the importance of Thiago Silva and the three-man midfield in front of him. Tuchel has been praised for being brave enough to pick Icardi, Mbappé, Neymar and Di María in what has been labeled a 4-2-4, but he is also wise enough to know when his team needs to exert control over a game. With Mbappé injured and Edinson Cavani released, Tuchel was short of attacking options but his tactics certainly looked chosen with the Champions League in mind.
The final was not one for the neutrals but it was valuable for both sets of players. They both showed that they understand the importance of adopting an aggressive, physical style of play, and how it can be a means to an end against the best opponents. The lack of league games was expected to be a disadvantage for the French clubs in the Champions League but, if Lyon and PSG put in such balanced, focused and hard-working performances in the next fortnight, they will be contenders in the latter stages of the competition, something that seemed unlikely when Ligue 1 ended its season three months ago.