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UCL Preview: Juventus vs Lyon

The last three years of Maurizio Sarri’s career would suggest that he has gone from strength to strength, adapting to the modern trials of football, and that the Juventus team that he will field against Lyon are clear favourites, ready to put goal after goal past them. Lyon have several players missing as a result of injuries, key players have been sold and they currently sit in 7th place in Ligue 1, 15 points off of qualification for next years Champions League campaign. For Sarri and his players, this should be easy going. But Lyon manager Rudi Garcia will certainly come prepared.

Maurizio Sarri never played professional football. Working as a bank manager, he played at an amateur level but that was the extent of it. It wasn’t until 2014 that he found himself in the top flight of Italian football, managing Empoli. After just avoiding relegation in his first year in Serie A, he moved to Napoli where he finished second to his current team, Juventus.

An inspiration to many for his tactically intricate style of play, Sarri’s most recent spell at Chelsea was met with a lukewarm reception. After finishing third to two of the most competitive and dangerous teams in English football history, he went on to win his first senior trophy: a Europa League victory against domestic rivals Arsenal. But despite the high league finish and the first European final and trophy since 2013, his stubborn approach to football was met with criticism by fans and pundits alike.

While his brand of playing was essential in seeing players such as Dries Mertens, Gonzalo Higuain and Jorginho become the players they are today, it was this dogmatic belief that he had and a total neglect of a backup plan that ultimately drove him from Chelsea to Juventus.

After 5 years of flexible and dominant play under Max Allegri, his departure made way for Sarriball: a fluid, energetic, structured if totally predictable approach.

The main focus of Juventus right now is, understandably, Cristiano Ronaldo. At 35 years old, Ronaldo is still demonstrating his athletic prowess and the goal scoring penchant that shot him to the top of the footballing world. Going to Juventus, was a great step in his career as he was able to move to a league where, as if by magic, players can continue well into their late 30s (although this did not necessarily look like it would have been a problem for him). His arrival at Juventus, however, did leave some questions over the future of Paulo Dybala. An archetypal second striker to play off of a big man, Dybala has garnered a reputation for being quick, agile, unpredictable and, as empty as this comparison has become, Messi like. 

In the quintessential 4-3-3 that Sarri loves to employ, it is hard to say exactly where Dybala fits as there is an imperative that Ronaldo must be on the pitch. He has often been shoe-horned in as a winger where he has found moderate success but it is clear that his comfort zone is through the centre. It is a shame, in that sense, that Gonzalo Higuain played the best in his career as the front man of Sarri’s 2015/16 Napoli squad. His resurgence is a blessing and curse for Juventus fans considering the other Argentinian forward they have on their books.

Whether it is a case of the other teams in the league outperforming what was expected of them or not, Juventus have been far from their usual dominant self this season. Is it fair to suggest that Sarriball has already peaked?

Not entirely. Looking past the attack, Juventus seem to have few problems elsewhere on the pitch. They were fortunate enough to land the signature of Matthijs De Ligt from Ajax, a transfer that could help Juve avoid having to address the inevitable departure of Giorgio Chiellini – Chiellini himself, at 35 years old, has worked himself back into the team after an ACL injury that could have otherwise been a career ender for most. Despite being 35, he is still such an important cog in the Juve defence. 

One of the most apparent and obvious changes that Sarri implemented/demanded at Chelsea was the acquisition of Jorginho from Napoli. A metronomic defensive midfielder who could pass to anyone on the pitch no matter where they were, Jorginho had only been with Chelsea for a season before Sarri left; he was not going to move again. Instead, Miralem Pjanić takes the role of regista. 

For the discussions of Jorginho being the ultimate Sarri player, it is somewhat ironic that the coach finds himself now managing someone who is a better version of Jorginho than Jorginho himself. More agile, a deadly free-kick specialist and generally a very well rounded payer, Pjanić is one of the best midfielders in Europe. He, of course, made a name from himself at Lyon; a club that could really do with him again.

After a period of domestic dominance in the early 2000s, Olympique Lyonnais ended their reign with 7 consecutive Ligue 1 titles. In 2009, they bid farewell to their star-striker Karim Benzema as he went on to become one of the most important and undervalued players in Real Madrid history. From this point, Lyon have had a number of hugely talented players come through the ranks, perform exceptionally well before leaving. And this trend hasn’t stopped.

This exact fixture was played 4 years ago. Of the starting eleven for Lyon that year, only goalkeeper Antony Lopes and occasional right back Rafael remain. In stark contrast, Juventus – a team who regularly undergo complete renovation in the space of a transfer window – have five players still wearing the black and white. With the lack of continuity, it is of no surprise that they have been unable to replicate the success of that stretch in the early 2000s. In the last three years they have lost Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Ferland Mendy, Tanguy Ndombele and captain Nabil Fekir; the last three leaving in one window. Frustratingly for Lyon, Fekir almost transferred to Liverpool for close to £60 million before signing for Real Betis 18 months later for just €20 million.

In recruiting the “replacements”, Lyon have been unfortunate and oftentimes hurried; players have sometimes struggled to adapt to their new club but patience should prevail. Jean Lucas, for example, was a seemingly like for like replacement for Ndombele but has had to take most of his minutes from the bench. Jeff Reine-Adélaïde seemed to take to Lyon very well before injuring his Cruciate Ligament in December, almost definitely ruling him out for the remainder of the season.

This isn’t to suggest that Lyon don’t have talented players anymore. Their youth development is amongst the best in Europe and their squad still boats an extraordinary collection of young and gifted individuals. Players like Houssem Aour, Moussa Dembelé and Maxence Caqueret. In addition to them, Lyon also boast a large group of players who have to deal with inconsistency and a lack of confidence or the finishing touches; players such as Bertrand Traoré, Martin Terrier and the recently loaned Lucas Tousart.

The most notable issue that Lyon face now (and in the remainder of their games this season) is the absence of Memphis Depay. At one point the bad-boy of Dutch football, Memphis’s attitude, professionalism and leadership have shone through at Lyon. After suffering an ACL tear in December, he has been ruled out of action until after the Euros – something he has flat out refused to miss. Such is his determination and dedication, Memphis is already on the pitch, training with the ball, jogging… all things that are most likely best avoided this soon after such a damaging injury. It is admirable but at the same time a possibly detriment to his club.

Lyon have the makings of a team that in a few years could be something special. Aour for example is already one of the most highly rated midfielders in Europe, capable of playing centrally and out wide. The question is, though, when the time comes, who will still be there?

Juventus are clear favourites for these matches. Not simply for the fact that they have the Champions League player Cristiano Ronaldo, but because the two teams are so disparate. While many draws for the Round of 16 have been relatively even, this is a clear anomaly.

If there is one thing that Juventus should be wary of it is that manager Rudi Garcia has never lost to Sarri. In four games as Roma manager, Garcia won 2 and drew 2. But even if he had only faced him once before, he would surely know exactly what to expect this time around. 

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