After weeks of waiting to get back into the glamour competition of Europe, the Champions league didn’t quite deliver on the expectations that have been placed on it. Maybe some of the sourness is due to Messi’s explicitly stated intent at the start of the season to win the UCL trophy this year after a four-year gap. Maybe that kind of vocalized ambition can complicate and unsettle the ghosts that decide success.

We understand that Messi is ambitious. We understand these characters have only gotten to that level through their ambition combined with their physical and tactical work and good fortune. But to hear the specific target of the magical player, does it break the spell?

It is perhaps that fear of breaking a spell that causes sportsmen more than any other public figures tend to speak in platitudes that are broad and unoffensive. They sound like the parody I’d heard growing up of country music singers’ awards acceptance speeches–“I’d like to thank my momma, my poppa, and the good lord above.”

With so much clear priority given to the Champions League, how did the focus pay off following weeks playing in low-gear to earn three draws and a single 1-0 victory out of the last four games? It was a frustrated affair that saw the regular attacking pattern of narrow charging to the center of the box from the front three, only to get strangled out of possession by an energetic defense that had sussed out the pattern.

Lyon played fantastically in the first half. They sprung counter attacks with vigor and seemed to take turns shining on the ball. It is no wonder that so many strong players have come through the team over the years–not the least of which being Samuel Umtiti, who managed to make the bench after spending most of the season in treatment from a phantom knee injury.

samuel umtiti lyon

But Lyon have clearly replaced their World Cup winning alumni well, and none of the stardust front line of Barça attackers could capitalize on any of the twenty-five shots they’d created. Particularly good was Lyon’s keeper, Anthony Lopes–though in truth singling out a player is difficult. I feel like the club could turn into a Monaco or Ajax of recent, and find itself getting stripped by other clubs for their players at a handsome return (I’d personally buy up Aouar who was thrilling in attacking midfield).

Valverde had a strategic dilemma to consider for the game. As the away-leg of the tie, it seemed that he was determined not to concede. The folly of Rome last year (and Paris the year before) meant that the team absolutely needed to not ship goals away from home, and have some security in their ability to score during the return-leg at the Nou Camp. So they set up with Sergi Roberto, Nelson Semedo, and Jordi Alba in the starting line-up. This would allow Sergi to drop into the defense relatively comfortably, though he was ostensibly a midfielder. Many expected Arturo Vidal to start, with Arthur Mello still out from injury, but Vidal’s tendency to gravitate towards the ball and the goal might have deterred Valverde from choosing the mohawked man for the starting eleven.

So instead they attacked over and over, but not in numbers, and without width from the backs charging into the wings to spread the defense. All the waves crashed, but the barriers remained unbroken. At the end, nil-nil.

It’s not a thrilling result, but it was an exciting game. It was dramatic and there was tension from several dynamics resonating on the pitch at any given moment. That tension and the response to it is going to be furious when the return leg is played. The next run of games in the meantime include Sevilla, and Madrid twice. It seems the time for warming up has ended.

 

 

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