The Lyonnais will be playing their “final” in Glasgow on December 12. To get to the knockout phase of the competition, they’ll have to win at Ibrox Park.
The men from Barcelona needed just one point to qualify, and they did it without having to force the issue, taking the lead twice. After just 4 minutes, their dreams took shape. OL lost the ball in midfield and Xavi quickly played Messi into space behind the OL defence. The Argentine passed to Bojan on the overlap, whose slide-rule cross found an unmarked Iniesta who finished clinically first time (4’).
On another day, the Lyonnais may have gone to water. But their principal merit tonight was getting almost straight back on even terms. Juninho’s 30m free kick found not takers from either team and ended up bouncing unchallenged into the Barça net (7’). After a hectic beginning, the game calmed down somewhat.
The Lyonnais had figured out that their salvation lay in their capacity to deprive Barcelona of the ball. However, they began the match by running after it, stuck in their own half of the pitch with Fred spending more of his time near the centre circle than near the penalty spot. Sure, OL stuck together and allowed the Catalans only a minimum of space, but they only ventured near Valdes’ goal on rare occasions; in fact it was only Fabio Santos, who won the ball on the edge of the area, who managed to worry the Spanish keeper at all (14’).
The tactic pays off when you launch forward quickly in attack but when you lose the ball too much in the centre circle, and too many mistakes prevent the team from moving forward as a unit, you spend your time running after Xavi and Iniesta. At the half-hour mark, Alain Perrin’s men were still afloat thanks as much to the opposition’s errors and lack of inspiration as to their own sticking together and defending well. After Iniesta’s opener, Only Touré had some chances, twice firing wide (10’ and 16’). After the 30-minute mark, Fabio Santos and Toulalan took their turn to push Touré and Xavi back into their own half. And the Lyonnais lifted their game a notch. Govou shot straight at Valdes then Juninho lacked power in his follow-up that Touré saved off the line (29’). Then the Brazilian’s free kick grazed the Spanish keeper’s post (31’).
Barça had been struggling to find form on the road, and they showed only flashes of inspiration and craftiness, to the point that Ronaldinho, who started on the bench for the first time in his Barça career, couldn’t lift them when he came on. His entry into the match confirmed that the FIFA World Player of the Year Awardwinner is a mere shadow of his former self. But the Catalans have in their ranks another exceptional player. In one of their rare incursions into the OL area, Messi got in front of Toto Squillaci, drawing him into conceding a penalty. The Argentine had no difficulty in beating Vercoutre from the spot (58’).
OL immediately pushed hard to get back on even terms and found some fine form. From a Messi cross, Gudjohnsen shot high into the stands of Gerland (63’). And Rémy Vercoutre made two fantastic saves, firstly from another effort from the Iceland international (67’) then another effort from Messi (68’).
At the end of a chaotic match, Hatem Ben Arfa scuffed his shot (70’) and then Juninho equalized from the penalty spot after Kader Keita had been brought down in the area by Eric Abidal (79’).
So the hardest part of OL’s group phase task remains to be done. At any rate, in light of the differences in form between the two sides, as well as their recent results (1 point from a possible 9 for Glasgow, 7 from 9 for OL), the Olympiens have grounds to hope for the best. After their catastrophic beginning to their Champions League campaign, their exploit will only be the more beautiful.