Lyon v Real Madrid, Champions League, February 16, 2010
Just as David Beckhamâ€™s return to Old Trafford has dominated the build-up to the Manchester United-AC Milan tie, the fitness of Karim Benzema has been poured over by the French press ahead of Real Madridâ€™s arrival at Stade Garland on Tuesday night.
Benzema is expected to make it after recovering from a muscle injury but will likely start on the bench with Gonzalo Higuain leading the line allowing Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to float behind. (Real are 12/5 to score in both halves.)
The big question for Real Madrid is whether they can finally negotiate the first knockout round of the Champions League – the stage where they have now exited the competition for five consecutive seasons. In effect this tie is a litmus test for the second coming of Florentino Perezâ€™s Galacticos policy and will signal whether Manuel Pellegriniâ€™s side can reach the final to be held in the Bernabeu. (Lyon are 4/7 to qualify, Real are 1/4.)
Lyon are not the force of old despite a huge summer spending spree that would have gained headlines had Real Madrid and Manchester City not spent so much cash.
OL are fourth in Ligue 1 and are in danger of not making the Champions League next season (Lyon are 1/25 to finish in the top three in Ligue 1), let alone challenging the likes of Bordeaux and Montpellier at the top of the table. A slim home win over Lens on Saturday kept confidence ticking over, but 2010 has been a mixed bag so far. Four Ligue 1 victories in five games have been tempered by exits in both domestic cup competitions to Monaco (Coupe de France) and Lorient (Coupe de la Ligue).
Claude Puelâ€™s side are decent going forward with Lisandro Lopez and Bafetimbi Gomis capable of upsetting even the best defences. (Lyon are 7/2 to score ion both halves.) At the back they can also impress with Hugo Lloris in goal and Brazilian defender Cris. In truth though they donâ€™t excel at anything in particular and may struggle against Real Madrid.
Left back Aly Cissokho impressed for Porto in the Champions League last season and could exploit the space down the Real Madrid right. Miralem Pjanic also emerged as a youngster to keep an eye on in the group stages and will be looking to show he can play on the biggest stage. The French giants also have a good record against Real Madrid. Lyon beat them in the group stages in 2005 and 2006 and also drew twice in the Bernabeu.
But Real Madrid are in excellent form and are giving Barcelona a great fight in the race for La Liga. Since the defeat at Athletic Bilbao in the middle of last month, Los Blancos have won four successive matches and two of these were without Cristiano Ronaldo who received his second sending off of the campaign against Malaga.
Almost every player in Manuel Pellegriniâ€™s side is in good form. Cristiano Ronaldo has justified his huge transfer fee with goals throughout his time in Spain. Kaka is coming good as proved by three assists in the 3-0 win at Xerez on Saturday and Gonzalo Higuain looks like a natural goal scorer. (Real are 13/2 to win both halves.)
Further back, Iker Casillas continues to look like the best goalkeeper in world football and although losing Pepe for the season was a big blow, Real Madrid have let in just 15 goals in La Liga all season. Rafael van der Vaart and Guti are unavailable for the match in France, but this should be more than compensated by the likes of Xabi Alonso and Lassana Diarra.
This looks like the perfect tie for Real Madrid, Lyon will provide stiff opposition, but will surely provide little match for the Galacticos. Cristiano Ronaldo has already wowed us in France already this season, in the 3-1 win at Marseille in December, it may not be as comprehensive this time, but expect Real Madrid to set themselves up nicely for the second leg in the Bernabeu.
101gg predicts: Lyon 1 â€“ Real Madrid 2 (9/1)
Full match odds here.