“It was, without a doubt, one of my most difficult weeks in terms of choice.” Bruno Genesio thought long and hard before finalising his Lyon team for Friday night’s trip to Montpellier. The coach’s decision revolved around one position in particular. Maxwell Cornet had been replaced by Mathieu Valbuena with just under 15 minutes to go at Lorient last week; four minutes later, the France midfielder had set up Rachid Ghezzal to put Les Gones ahead.
It was a little surprising, then, that Genesio voted Cornet in to start at Stade de la Mosson, especially when one considers that the forward had been ill while away with the France Under-21 squad this week. The idea was, said the coach, to maintain the “balance” of the team. As with so much for an OL side that was struggling to string two passes together before Christmas, it worked to perfection.
If last week’s flat performance suggested Cornet might be heading towards the sort of natural dip that one would expect of someone of his age and thus be getting ready to - at least temporarily - abdicate his place in the XI to one of his more experienced colleagues, this was as strong a riposte as he could have planned.
The 19-year-old’s first-half double on Friday night elevated Lyon into second place on goal difference, a leap consolidated by the hiding Lille handed out to previous incumbents Monaco on Sunday afternoon. The goals took the former Metz forward to 10 goals for the season and six in Ligue 1, making him the club’s second top goalscorer overall. He has been very efficient, feeding off an average of just 0.9 efforts on goal per game - and all of his last four shots on target in Ligue 1 have ended in goals.
It’s been a spectacular rise for Cornet, who few would have placed anywhere near the XI at the start of the season, and who looked very raw on arrival at Tola Vologe, just over 14 months ago, with explosive pace, but apparently little else. When he signed for Lyon, Cornet hadn’t managed so much as a first-team goal for Metz.
The goals - especially the spectacular strikes against Paris Saint-Germain and Valencia, which opened the scoring in both of those wins - might grab the headlines, but the moment that really suggested he could become an integral part of the side was in the recent trip to Rennes. Cornet engineered the opener, instigating a rapid counter-attack down the left-hand side and then rolling a pass across the penalty area at precisely the right time to present Ghezzal with an easy opener.
It has often felt like Lyon are at least one forward light this season. The sale of Clinton N’Jie to Tottenham was understandable given the financial incentives involved and the fact that the Cameroonian wasn’t a first-choice starter, but he has been missed to an extent. N’Jie’s pace and far-less celebrated vision was becoming a bigger part of OL’s game. His seven goals and seven assists last season meant he was involved in a Ligue 1 goal every 108 minutes.
It’s not just Cornet contributing, but Ghezzal too. The Algeria international has chipped in with that two-way threat, scoring six and assisting sevem in the space of just 12 starts. Born in Décines, just a firm defensive clearance away from the new Parc OL, Ghezzal has been revitalised in the period since Lyon moved into his old back yard - or, more accurately, in the time since Hubert Fournier was replaced as coach by his erstwhile assistant Genesio.
Ghezzal’s mother has said that she couldn’t even bear to look at the arena when she walked past it until recently, as her son silently suffered on the fringes of the first-team. That worry has been blown away by his phenomenal form since the turn of the year. Few have done as much to lift OL back up the table than Ghezzal. Six of his goals and four of his assists have arrived in this period, four and three, respectively, in the last month, and has won the WhoScored man of the match award three times in that period.
The thing with Ghezzal and Cornet is that the two left-footers work as a pair, with the former’s dribbling and passing working well cutting in from the right, and Cornet’s rapid break stretching the game on the left, either side of a recharged Alexandre Lacazette. Even when they did get opportunities earlier in the season, neither were used in their current positions. They’ve swapped, and it’s worked brilliantly.
The problem for Valbuena - and the returning Nabil Fekir, who played the final four minutes as a substitute on Friday night, almost scoring - is that they need to play a significant part in OL’s final five games to stake their France claims. How can they, though, with the players in possession in such scintillating form?
Didier Deschamps has made clear that he will give Fekir every chance to make a late run but Genesio, while wanting to help, is not inclined or pressed to rush him, and justifiably so. Valbuena’s off-pitch challenges have been well-documented, but it’s his on-field form, or lack thereof, that has pushed him to the margins of Deschamps’ squad at the worst possible time. The Lorient assist was only his third since late October.
The return of Hatem Ben Arfa with Nice on Friday - in a direct battle for Champions League places and with the former wearer of Fekir’s number 18 shirt fresh from a sensational hat-trick to beat Rennes - adds another layer to the gunfight for a place in the France squad, as well as the race to nail a place in the top three. Whatever Deschamps’ eventual choices and the order of places two and three in the Ligue 1 table, it is certain that Parc OL will play host to an enviable wealth of attacking talent later this week.
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