Karim Haggui of Hannover 96 fights for the ball with Bafetimbi Gomis of Lyon during a pre season friendly match. Olympique Lyonnais play APOEL Nicosia in the UEFA Champions League on February 14, 2012. (Photo by Lars Kaletta/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Olympique Lyonnais face APOEL Nicosia on Tuesday in what is possibly the most unpredictable UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.
The Champions League tie between APOEL Nicosia and Olympique Lyonnais is a bit light on star power, but certainly not on intrigue. Lyon are recent semifinalists in this competition, while APOEL finished top of a group that included Zenit St. Petersburg, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk, three regular knockout stage participants and winners of three of the last four editions of the Europa League.
Both teams are in very average form domestically, partially because of injuries, but it wouldn't be surprising if their struggles had a lot to do with looking ahead to the Champions League. APOEL sit second in the Cypriot First Division, while Lyon sit fourth in Ligue 1.
Les Gones are coming off of a loss against relegation battlers Caen, who downed them 2-1 at the weekend. Their defense was burned badly for an early goal, and they struggled to break down a very bunkered side after that. APOEL are coming off of a 2-1 win over Ethnikos Achna, in which captain Constantinos Charalambides scored both of his team's goals.
Both sides are currently shorthanded in central defense, which could make for a sloppy, but fun game with a few goals in it. Johnathan Mensah is just returning from Africa Cup of Nations duty for Lyon, while Dejan Lovren is still out. Samuel Umtiti and Bakary Kone started at the weekend, with 34-year-old veteran Cris on the bench. Umtiti and Kone were completely caught out on Caen's first goal, and looked a bit shaky throughout the match.
APOEL's defensive problems are arguably even worse. Both Marcelo Olivera and Paulo Jorge are not expected to be fit enough to play. Brazilians Kaka and William Boaventura should slot into the center of defense, which is hardly ideal for APOEL, as the latter is actually a left back. Nuno Morais played in defense at the weekend and will likely push up into midfield. Nektarios Alexandrou is the likely starter at left back.
Lyon's missing central defenders give them enough of a problem, but they could also have some defensive problems that are self-created. Fullbacks Aly Cissokho and Anthony Réveillère are very attack-minded and will push very high up the pitch. Caen's first goal on the weekend came as a result of Cissokho getting caught up the pitch and Umtiti not reacting fast enough to a run by Romain Hamouma. The second goal came on an incredible volley, but Réveillère could have prevented it had he closed down Livio Nabab quicker.
Both Ailton, APOEL's central striker and Ivan Tričkovski, their withdrawn forward, work very hard off the ball and are great at making intelligent runs to find space for the midfielders to play them into. If Cissokho and Réveillère get caught too high up the pitch, this could cause problems for the Lyon defense.
On the other end, Lyon has an attacking advantage simply because of talent and experience. Paulo Jorge and Marcelo Olivera were brilliant throughout the group stages, and with them in the team, a draw away from home would seem manageable for APOEL. Though Kaka and Boaventura aren't slouches, there is a drop-off, and they will probably struggle to compete with Bafetimbi Gomis and Lisandro Lopez.
Lyon should come away with a home win and give themselves a great chance to advance going into Cyprus, but their defensive struggles could mean an away goal for APOEL. If they can keep their losing margin to one while scoring, they will like their chances in the second leg at home.
Olympique Lyonnais vs. APOEL Nicosia
Game Date/Time: Tuesday, February 14, 2:45 p.m. ET, 8:45 p.m. CET.
Venue: Stade de Gerland, Lyon, France
TV: FOX Soccer Plus and FSN Regionals (USA), Sportsnet World (Canada), Sky Sports 4 (UK)
Olympique Lyonnais (4-2-3-1): Hugo Lloris; Aly Cissokho, Cris, Bakary Kone, Anthony Réveillère; Clement Grenier, Maxime Gonalons; Michel Bastos, Lisandro Lopez, Jimmy Briand; Bafetimbi Gomis
APOEL Nicosia (4-4-1-1): Dionisis Chiotis; Nektarios Alexandrou, William Boaventura, Kaka, Savvas Poursaitidis; Gustavo Manduca, Helio Pinto, Nuno Morais, Constantinos Charalambides; Ivan Tričkovski; Ailton