In the Champions League era, Europe’s second tier teams – the likes of Porto, Benfica, PSV and Ajax – have traditionally functioned as shop windows for the truly big boys.
The financial might of the more glamorous leagues means smaller teams, regardless of their historical standing in the game, have little chance of holding onto their prized assets for more than a few seasons – and, once the floodgates open, they tend to see their teams quickly gutted of star power.
Lyon, who dominated the French top flight in the mid-2000s before PSG came along, are the perfect illustration of this trend. Les Gones won the league title seven times on the spin between 2001 and 2008, and routinely made the knockout stages in Europe, before their team was gradually picked apart by vultures from around the continent.
The beauty of this squad was that many of its star players were drawn either from the club’s youth system – still, to this day, one of the leading producers of talent in Europe – or minor teams from around France. It was a dream team built less on spending power than it was on diligent scouting and time spent on the training ground.
Lyon’s success owed much to the midfield duo of Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra, who would later earn big money moves to Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively. Neither of them were flashy goalscorers, but both had the unerring ability to win possession in the middle of the park, and cover enough ground that more adventurous players were freed up to support the attack.
The marquee name was Juninho, the Brazilian wizard who only won 40 caps for his national team (that’s what happens when you’re from the same nation as Ronaldinho and Kaka), but had an unrivalled talent for smashing the ball in from dead ball situations almost anywhere inside the opposing team’s half.
They also had emerging youngsters in the shape of Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema, who were teenagers yet to reach the height of their potential at the time Lyon’s team began to be syphoned off by clubs around the continent. The fact that they never quite managed to get this hugely talented team firing on all cylinders at the same time is nothing short of a modern footballing travesty.
Their best shot of winning the Champions League was probably 2005, a year in which they were cruelly knocked out in the quarter finals on penalties by PSV, another of Europe’s mid-2000s bridesmaids. Many of the big boys that year were in the midst of transition, and Lyon arguably had a better team, man for man, than the eventual winners Liverpool.
Had they held on to the likes of Essien, Diarra, Abidal and Malouda a little while longer, and seen their exciting youngsters blossom at the same time, we could now be talking about France’s greatest ever club side (yes, better than modern-day PSG). In the contemporary football landscape, at club like Lyon assembling a group of players of this quality is, unfortunately, virtually unthinkable.
Where there a few players in that Lyon side that jumped ship? We will let you decide if they deserve a place in our ‘snake XI’!