BILBAO, Spain — There were some familiar themes as Lyon knocked Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions League on Wednesday night. Just as they did in the 2017 final, and in their recent French Cup final, PSG ran their rivals close, only to lose narrowly. And just as she has done throughout her career at both club and international level, Wendie Renard helped her team with a headed goal from a set piece.
This wasn’t a classic match by any means. The two sides simply know each other far too well by now for either to let their guard down and allow for an open contest. Consequently, it wasn’t surprising that a one-legged Champions League semifinal clash between them developed into a cagey, tactical and scrappy affair.
Lyon did try something a little different with their shape, abandoning their usual 4-2-3-1 for a winger-less 4-3-1-2. Defensively and offensively, they set up in a diamond midfield that saw Saki Kumagai at the base with Sara Bojrk Gunnarsdottir and Amel Majri playing box-to-box, while Dzsenifer Marozsan roamed behind a front two of Delphine Cascarino and Nikita Parris.
The change of system worked from a defensive standpoint to the extent that it forced PSG wide. Parris and Cascarino didn’t press high, instead moving side to side and screening their opponents’ midfield pair of Grace Geyoro and Sara Dabritz, while Marozsan also moved laterally to mark the nearest of that duet.
Unable to get their midfielders on the ball, PSG possession went out to their fullbacks, Ashley Lawrence and Perle Morroni. But progression from there was equally difficult, with Lyon’s midfield three shifting to the ball side and working incredibly hard to cover nearby opponents, fill gaps and track runs.
There was space out wide against Lyon’s diamond for PSG to exploit, and they sometimes did this on the left with Morroni’s overlapping runs and on the right through Nadia Nadim or Ramona Bachmann drifting wide to get on the ball. But too often their wide play led to nothing in the form of poor crossing or mistimed passes in behind, leaving striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto without decent supply.
This inability to fully exploit the flanks was perhaps an opportunity missed for PSG, especially considering the quality of player they have in those areas. Starting on the left wing, Kadidiatou Diani wasn’t able to make a significant impression on the game. Her only moment of magic came during a first-half transition, where she was able to get some momentum and drive at an open defense. However, her brilliant dribble concluded with a poor final ball that failed to find one of three options running ahead of her.
PSG actually looked more threatening without the ball than with it, putting a high press on that caused some problems for Lyon, particularly early on. With Katoto and an energetic Bachmann applying pressure, Lyon’s center backs were frequently forced back to Sarah Bouhaddi. PSG would continue to press even when the ball went back to the Lyon goalkeeper, forcing the occasional turnover.
Gradually, however, the intensity of PSG’s pressing faded, and Lyon were able to possess the ball a bit more comfortably. Kadeisha Buchanan and Renard were supported in build-up by Kumagai, who always tried to make herself available. In addition, Gunnarsdottir, Majri and Marozsan took turns dropping into the channels of PSG’s four-player midfield, attempting to create passing angles for their central defensive teammates to utilize.
Lyon’s diamond midfield also allowed them to overload PSG’s central midfielders at times and work some nice combination play to break the lines. Once beyond PSG’s midfield, they could get Cascarino dribbling at the back line or work a ball into the box for Parris to hunt down. She nearly finished from one of these moves early on, shooting just wide on an accurate pick-out by Gunnarsdottir after Lyon combined their way through to the final third.
While the first half was a tactical battle, the second half was defined by fouls and red cards. Geyoro was the first to be sent off, though Parris evened things up 10 minutes later. Interestingly, Geyoro’s two yellow cards came from tactical fouls after she’d been beaten for skill, which may have been part of PSG’s plan. Even if not, they did commit one foul every two minutes they spent without the ball. (For context: Lyon committed a foul every three-and-a-half minutes of non-possession).
Geyoro’s second yellow card came with a second punishment in the form of a free kick in a dangerous position. Lyon had gone close with an in-swinging Majri cross from a similar situation in the first half, and this time they didn’t waste their chance. Majri, with her superb left foot, found the aerially dominant Renard, and that was the winning goal.
PSG weren’t out-classed here, but at the same time they never truly looked like winning. Lyon created the better chances, looked more organized from an attacking standpoint, and caused problems consistently from set pieces. Once again the two sides fought a close contest, once again Lyon won, and once again it felt somewhat inevitable that they would.