Bayern Munich and Lyon are playing in the UEFA Champions League semifinals on Wednesday in Lisbon. The winner will face Paris St.-Germain the final of the competition, European soccer’s richest club championship.
Rory Smith’s semifinal preview: Rested vs. rusty?
It has been only a couple of months since Jean-Michel Aulas declared that this would all be quite impossible. France’s soccer authorities had declared an end to the Ligue 1 season — with 10 games still remaining — in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and Aulas, the owner and president of Olympique Lyonnais, was simmering.
Not only would the cancellation cost French clubs revenue, time and players, Aulas said, not only would it deprive his team of the chance to improve on its standing — it sat seventh in the league table when the season was stopped, meaning it faced the prospect of a first season outside European competition in more than a decade — but it would hamstring the attempts of the two French representatives of the Champions League.
Aulas’s theory was simple, and it was widely held: Lyon and Paris St.-Germain, the two French teams still alive in the knockout rounds, would return to the Champions League cold, weakened with ring rust, against opponents in the full flush of the season. “In August, we are going to meet teams in these competitions who have been able to prepare better than us,” he had said in the spring.
On Tuesday night, P.S.G. became the first French team to reach a Champions League final since Monaco in 2004. On Wednesday, Lyon can join its great rival, though there is the rather intimidating bulwark of Bayern Munich — fresh off an 8-2 victory against Barcelona — standing in the way. Never a man to let facts get in the way of his opinion, Aulas suggested, after P.S.G. rallied to eliminate Atalanta and Lyon shocked Manchester City in the quarterfinals, that a “little bit of luck” had erased the competitive disadvantage the French teams had been handed.
Lyon will need that to hold this evening. Bayern has looked imperious since European soccer’s restart — since Hansi Flick took charge in November, in fact — culminating in that coldblooded demolition of Barcelona. The general rule of European soccer is that the team with the greater resources and the better players will win, and in that sense this is as big a mismatch as P.S.G.’s victory against RB Leipzig on Tuesday.
Lyon is, at least, an outsider that is easier to cheer than Leipzig. Though the pugnacious Aulas is not what you might call universally beloved in France, he has turned his club into something of a model for others to follow. And he has done it not once, but twice. First, around the turn of the century, when smart recruitment, especially from South America, turned Lyon into the leading light in French soccer. And now, when its productive academy and its emphasis on youth has earned it a reputation as one of Europe’s premier talent factories.
Houssem Aouar and Maxence Caqueret are the two crown jewels; both will need to use this game as their star burst, the moment they announce themselves to the world, if Lyon is to have any chance.
Wednesday’s winner will face Paris St.-Germain, which outclassed RB Leipzig in Tuesday’s first semifinal, in the final on Sunday at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz.
The game will be P.S.G.’s first appearance in the final, and the culmination of a yearslong project by its Qatari owners to build a world-beating team. It has not always gone well for P.S.G. But as Rory wrote Tuesday night:
After all the wrong turns, all the heartache and disappointment, the humiliations and the turnarounds and the gut-wrenching collapses, Paris St.-Germain has finally done what it was designed and built to do.
This year marked P.S.G.’s first appearance in the semifinals since 1995 — long before both the arrival of the club’s Qatari owners and even the birth of Kylian Mbappé — and the club has, in recent years, developed a habit of falling short when faced with one of Europe’s giants. But it has everything it needs to compete this time: the world’s most expensive player in Neymar, arguably its best young player in Mbappé, and the grit and drive and luck that has been missing in past runs.
Sunday, against a tradition-rich opponent, will be the final test of a project that has been years in the marking.