Lyon hoping to limit Lionel Messi’s influence
Valverde plays down the significance of his side’s recent slack displays
Barcelona’s Leo Messi celebrates after scoring against Real Valladolid at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. Photograph: EPA/Andreu Dalmau
Olympique Lyonnais will be out to “reduce” the influence of Lionel Messi when they host Barcelona in their Champions League last-16 first leg without their talisman and captain Nabil Fekir on Tuesday.
Fekir will be suspended for the game, limiting Lyon’s striking power as Bruno Genesio’s side will rely on defender Ferland Mendy to contain Argentine forward Messi and French striker Ousmane Dembele.
“Nabil Fekir is our captain and technical leader. We will have to do more to compensate for his absence,” Genesio told reporters on Monday. “We will have to reduce Messi’s influence.”
Despite Messi having scored more than 100 times in the Champions League, Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar has confidence in his team mate Mendy to control proceedings at the Groupama Stadium. “I think that Ferland Mendy is ready to face Messi,” he said. “We are confident in the qualities of our squad.”
Aouar’s enthusiasm may yet be dented as Lyon are also sweating on the fitness of defender Jason Denayer and midfielder Tanguy Ndombele.
The French side geared up for Tuesday’s clash with a hard-fought 2-1 Ligue 1 win against Guingamp on Friday, while Barca needed a Messi penalty to beat Real Valladolid 1-0 in La Liga on Saturday.
Lyon are the clear underdogs, but they have already shown they can rise to big occasions, inflicting Paris St Germain’s only Ligue 1 defeat of the season a couple of weeks ago. They also beat English champions Manchester City in the Champions League group stage in September.
Despite an iron grip on domestic trophies, Barcelona have been haunted by their recent failures in the Champions League, and there are concerning signs for the Catalans as they prepare for Tuesday’s last-16 first leg.
Coach Ernesto Valverde’s side fly to France after an uninspiring 1-0 win at home to struggling Real Valladolid on Saturday which consolidated their lead at the top of La Liga but left plenty of doubts about their capabilities of winning Europe’s top prize.
The drab victory over Valladolid, in which Lionel Messi scored a penalty and missed one, followed a goalless stalemate at Athletic Bilbao, a 2-2 draw with Valencia, and a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in a Copa del Rey semi-final first leg.
Valverde has played down the significance of his side’s recent slack displays. “Sometimes you cannot be brilliant in every game, but I think the team is ready to play at its very best.”
Defender Gerard Pique, however, was more scathing of Barca’s performance against Valladolid, and warned of the potential consequences of their lacklustre displays.
“We were not the Barca we wanted to be, the result was good, the sensations were not. We must improve on Tuesday or we will suffer a lot. If we don’t move the ball quickly, dominate the play and possession or create chances, we are a weaker team.”