With a delicious glass of cold brew in my hands early Monday morning, I waited for the Champions League Round of 16 draw to occur, knowing full well those stupid ping-pong balls were going to give Juventus an extremely difficult opponent with a delightfully dramatic backstory.
Was it going to be a clash with our old rival manager Jose Mourinho and his suddenly-searing Tottenham Hotspur squad? (Obligatory “the history of the Tottenham” reference.) Or perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo was going to make a return to the Bernabéu against Spanish giants Real Madrid? (I’ll be fine if I never see the Juventus midfield face Casemiro again.) What about Maurizio Sarri taking a flight back to jolly old London for a Stamford Bridge reunion? (I still don’t understand how Chelsea supporters don’t consider his time there a success — third place and a Europa League title with a not-very-great roster, c’mon! — but there’s nothing I can do about it.)
In fact, headed into the draw, Lyon were, statistically speaking, the least likely opponent the Old Lady could’ve drawn, with just a 16 percent shot at facing the French side. Yet, that’s exactly the way the cookie crumbled, narratives and backstories be damned.
There’s no other plausible way to spin this: Of the five teams Juve could’ve drawn — Real Madrid, Chelsea, Spurs, Lyon, or Borussia Dortmund — the Ligue 1 side was far and away the easiest opponent. There’s no hipster spin or “actually ...” slant you can give this draw. Juventus have found themselves in an extraordinarily fortunate position facing arguably the worst team in the competition who lost two players to season-ending knee injuries this past weekend in Jeff Reine-Adelaide and, their most lethal weapon, Memphis Depay.
Sarri has more than two full months to gear up for the clashes with Lyon, and his side will be very heavily favored. Still, of course, this is the Champions League, and things are always prone to not go according to plan.
Who are these French guys anyway & how could they possibly beat Juve?
Weird factoid about Lyon: Although they’re currently sitting in eighth place in league play — which is not great, because France kind of sucks — they only trail Paris Saint-Germain in terms of goal differential (albeit it’s a 30-11 difference). In other words, Lyon are better than their table placing might indicate.
They’ve endured a slew of one-goal losses — seven in league play alone. That is insane, and not a hell of a lot different from Juve’s close calls this year, except Lyon has been on the wrong end of those close calls. They have, however, managed to defeat Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig in Germany (although it was a very, very fluky game), and they showed a hell of a lot of grit to claw back from a 2-0 deficit to Leipzig in France on the final matchday to salvage a 2-2 draw.
Even with Depay down for the count, this is a pretty talented and exciting team to watch. If the games between these two sides do open up, there’s going to be a ton of individual skill on display. Twenty-two-year-old Lucas Tousart is a pitbull of a defensive midfielder, 21-year-old Houssem Aouar can do things like this, 24-year-old Bertrand Traoré is a threat to do a lot of things on the right side of the pitch (cut in, play crosses, link up), and 23-year-old Moussa Dembele has played a pretty damn good second fiddle to Depay with nine league goals.
Have I mentioned this is a very young team?
There’s good and bad in that, of course, but it’s the one area where I do feel a little hesitation. Juventus are quite an old team if you haven’t checked the last roster, and with Lyon already feeling the surging rage of being overlooked — they’ll have two months of hearing how Juventus are going to blow past them and CR7 is going to score 673 goals — their youth is only going to make them a more frenetic presence on the pitch. Juventus is going to need to plan to absorb that energy and smack back. The Old Lady must be disciplined with defensive lines and put Lyon’s dynamic playmakers in impossible positions.
The recipe for a Lyon win over 180 minutes is certainly complex and relatively far-fetched, but it’s not difficult to imagine a single Juventus error leading to a goal, another moment of brilliance from Aouar, and two botches chances from Higuain that send the first leg to a deficit for Juve, who fail to come back in the final 90 minutes. Stranger things have happened.
How Juventus should approach the fixtures: easy does it
Rudi Garcia may have two-plus months to figure out his tactics without Depay in the lineup, but that doesn’t mean he has a player with equal replacement value. The Dutchman had already tallied 14 goals (9 in Ligue 1, 5 in Champions League play) and has been absolute fire. Garcia isn’t going to grab someone in the transfer market of the same quality or else suddenly find a spark that blazing on his squad.
If I were in charge of Juventus, which I’m not, I would probably take a pretty conservative approach to this matchup; Lyon are going to make mistakes at the back. If Juventus control possession and turn the pressure up notch by notch like we’ve seen the Bianconeri do so many times in Serie A, they should be able to rely on the skill of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, and the cast of side characters to absorb the energy that Lyon will bring and strike back.
From my vantage point, this isn’t going to be a matchup where Juventus ought to throw huge numbers forward, because the counter-attack is a place where Lyon could be dangerous. In fact, I think Sarri might approach Lyon the exact same way he did in the final Champions League game against Bayer Leverkusen:
We waited for Bayer Leverkusen’s tempo and aggression to drop, so when Federico Bernardeschi found enormous spaces in that area, we thought it was the right time to use all three together.
Of course, Lyon isn’t going to be in the same do-or-die position from the first whistle, but they’re going to have the spunk of an overwhelming underdog and the jittery nerves of a relatively inexperienced squad, so I’d expect something similar.
All things considered, Juventus did indeed catch a huge break here; there’s really no other way to look at it — even before Depay goes down, this is the team you’d probably want to see.
Sarri has three different competitions (Supercoppa Italiana, Coppa Italia, and Serie A), 11 games, and 60-plus days in between now and the short flight from Turin to Lyon for the first leg, and he has plenty on his plate. Let’s hope the good form that Juve showed in the first half against Udinese continues to be the trend; if it does, Juventus will march on to the Champions League quarterfinals.