Since Manchester United’s unforgettable, treble-clinching Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson has added several more memories – and trophies – in a tenure at the club that has now surpassed the two-decade mark.
But, the one thing that has eluded Fergie since that night in Barcelona is another trip to that promised land.
There’ve been two semifinal appearances, including last season, but that’s as close as the Red Devils have come since then.
Along with attempting to retain their domestic crown, United are also chasing European glory once again, and after breezing through the group stage and coming within 20 minutes of six successive wins, they could very well be considered the favorites to lift the trophy in Moscow on 21 May.
United may well have the ugliest football team in the world, but what they do on the pitch has been anything but for the better part of the season. Cristiano Ronaldo has made a big case to be called the world’s best at the moment, as he scored nine goals in January and has 27 goals in 31 appearances, including five in the Champions League. Besides Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez (14 goals) and Wayne Rooney (10 goals) have also done their part to shred defenses many times thus far.
Defensively, United have been as stingy at the back as they have potent at the front, allowing only 21 goals in 35 matches this season (26 league, 6 CL, 2 FA Cup, 1 Carling Cup).
However, don’t expect their round of 16 opponent to lay down and allow them to just stroll through to the quarterfinals.
It hasn’t exactly been the most consistent of seasons for Ligue 1 dominators Lyon, but Alain Perrin’s side finds themselves in a pretty familiar position, atop the Ligue 1 standings and in the Champions League round of 16.
Lyon are gunning for an amazing seventh consecutive Ligue 1 crown, and just as impressively, are making a fifth consecutive appearance in the Champions League round of 16.
For OL, the names seem to change year in, year out, but the results stay the same.
In the summer, out went Florent Malouda (Chelsea), Eric Abidal (Barcelona), and Tiago (Juventus), continuing the yearly exodus of some of Lyon’s top talent, following the exits of Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra in previous seasons.
But, even in the face of losing several premier talents, the continued success is aided by the players who have stayed through stars and managers leaving, namely the likes of Sidney Govou, Juninho, and Gregory Coupet.
But, they churn out young talent with the best of them, and their current gem, or at least one of them, is 20-year old striker Karim Benzema, who will give a stiff test to United’s resolute backline.
Benzema has become one of France’s and Europe’s hottest prospects this term, as he’s found the net 18 times for his club thus far in all competitions.
But, Benzema doesn’t have to do it all on his own, thanks in part to fellow hotshot Hatem Ben Arfa and the aforementioned Juninho and Govou, who not only provide the experience, but also the regular goal as well.
Lyon’s defensive efforts have been boosted by the return of Coupet, who made his season debut on 12 January after a torn knee ligament had kept him out since the beginning of August.
This is the second season in a row that United are going up against French competition in the round of 16. Last time around, they faced Lille and recorded back to back 1-0 wins to advance to the quarterfinals.
These two sides have some recent history against one another as well, having been paired together in the group stage in the 2004-05 competition.
In their meeting in France on the first matchday, Lyon went ahead 2-0 in the first half, but Ruud Van Nistelrooy came to United’s rescue, with his two second-half strikes salvaging a point. Then, in the fifth matchday, Van Nistelrooy was the match-winner at Old Trafford, with his 51st minute giving United a 2-1 win.
Which way will this meeting go?
Lyon lost their first two Champions League group ties before getting 10 points in their last four matches to sneak past Rangers into the second qualifying spot in Group E.
They’ve also bumbled along in Ligue 1 at times this season, but it seems as if they’ve hit their stride at the right time, at least at home, where they’ve scored three wins in a row in the league.
At the same time, United have a hit a mini-lull, if you can call it that, drawing and losing in their last two league ties against Tottenham and Manchester City. In terms of their pursuit of a title repeat, it doesn’t come at an opportune time, simply because you can’t afford to drop that many points in a such a tight title race.
But, there’s no need to go and pull out your hair, because every side has their little lull, and theirs just happens to come after they’d taken three points nine out of the last ten times in the league, and had gone a perfect six for six in January, outscoring their opponents 16-1 in the process. It could just be that the entire team needs to get a pair of those Mercurial Vapors, or maybe Ronaldo needs to put on a new pair.
With the first leg of this tie coming only three days after United take on Arsenal in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Sir Alex might face a bit of a selection quandary, and we could see the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, and others play a limited role at most, so they can be well-rested for the tie in France and the stretch run of the season.
United are definitely the favorites in this tie, because they’re capable of getting the needed result in France, and home is where the heart (and the goals) are – United have outscored their opponents 42-9 at home (19 matches). In the midst of Ronaldo’s scoring run and Tevez finding the net on a fairly regular basis, Rooney may have become a forgotten man, and this will be a fine opportunity for him to find his scoring touch again. If he can, it certainly bodes well for he and United, both in the short and long run.
Lyon haven’t strung together consistent results away from home, though their 3-0 win at Rangers on Matchday 6 shows just what they’re capable of. But, just how much of a chance they have in this tie will depend not only on how well they can contain United’s attack and vice versa, but also if they can avoid another case of ‘stage fright.’
Past the group stage, Lyon have had trouble against Europe’s more elite sides, so this is another chance for them to prove their worth as one of the continent’s premier sides. And for that to happen, they’ll have to bring their best against a side that is already one of Europe’s best, and in a year of remembrance, are on their own quest.
Go back to the full 16-team 2007/2008 UEFA Champions League 2nd Round Preview on Soccerlens.