In Houssem Aouar, Lyon have a player who is both a symbol of their success at bringing through gifted young talent and a reason why the French side can hope to pull off another Champions League sensation when they meet Bayern Munich in the semi-finals in Lisbon on Wednesday.
Moussa Dembele stole the headlines by scoring the late goals which gave Lyon a shock 3-1 win over Manchester City in the quarter-finals, but Aouar was at the origin of both.
The 22-year-old playmaker supplied the pass for Dembele to put Lyon 2-1 up in the 79th minute at the Estadio Jose Alvalade. Then it was Aouar’s shot which Ederson parried out for Dembele to wrap up the victory.
According to statisticians Opta, only Kylian Mbappe and Riyad Mahrez have given more assists than Aouar since the start of last season in the Champions League.
Yet his game against City was about much more than that. For all the opposition’s expensive talent, he ran the midfield.
It is little wonder he has been linked with a move to City, while not so long ago it was Barcelona who were reportedly his biggest admirers.
Aouar has been at Lyon since he was a little boy, signing for his hometown team aged 11 and quickly wowing those who brought him through the ranks.
«He was always getting moved up to play with a higher age group because his potential was so great,» his former youth coach, Armand Garrido, told AFP in Lyon.
This may be the year that Aouar, not yet capped at full international level by France, moves on. He has three years left on his contract and his value is sky high.
After Saturday’s game, City coach Pep Guardiola praised Aouar and his midfield colleagues, Bruno Guimaraes, also 22, and 20-year-old Maxence Caqueret, another academy graduate. «They have three exceptional players in the middle,» he said.
Now that trio are preparing for a meeting with a Bayern side who appear on another level to everyone in Europe just now.
After finishing a lowly seventh in the curtailed Ligue 1 season, Lyon came to Lisbon for the ‘Final Eight’ knowing they had to win the Champions League just to qualify for Europe again next season.
That seems highly unlikely, but before facing City, Aouar made clear that Lyon had not come to Lisbon to make up the numbers. «If we are here, it is because we want to go as far as possible,» he said.
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– A club with solid foundations –
– A club with solid foundations –
Nevertheless, ‘OL’ are punching above their weight here, having been forced to adapt to a new landscape in France since the Qatari takeover of PSG in 2011.
Champions seven years running between 2002 and 2008, they are no longer the country’s leading force, but the foundations have been laid for Lyon to establish themselves as Ligue 1’s second power.
Their revenue last season of 220.8 million euros ($262m) was only a third of that of Bayern and PSG, but it placed them 17th in the Deloitte Football Money League.
President Jean-Michel Aulas has been there since 1987, overseeing their rise.
In a country where clubs do not usually own their stadiums, Lyon have their own privately-funded, 59,000-seat ground that is among Europe’s best.
And Lyon are no strangers to Champions League success: Their women’s team, featuring the likes of Norwegian superstar Ada Hegerberg, have been European champions six times, including in the last four seasons.
On Saturday, Lyon face Bayern again in the ‘Final Eight’ of the Women’s Champions League in Bilbao. They will be favourites in that game, unlike in Lisbon, which threatens to be Aouar’s last dance in a Lyon shirt.
A report by the CIES (International Centre for Sports Studies) Football Observatory last year listed which clubs produced the most players in the top five European leagues. Lyon were third with 30, behind only Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Alexandre Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso, Samuel Umtiti and Nabil Fekir came through at Lyon before moving on. Aouar will follow suit sooner or later, but first he has Bayern in his sights.