Lyon's crumbling defense is harming its bid for top-3 finish

FILE - This is a Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 file photo of Lyon's coach Bruno Genesio gestures during the round of 32, first leg, Europa League soccer match between AZ and Lyon at AZ stadium in Alkmaar, Netherlands. Three defeats and a draw in the past four games, with 10 goals conceded, has seriously dented Lyon’s bid for a top-three finish and a place in next season’s Champions League. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong/File)

PARIS — While Samuel Umtiti is emerging as a rock in the center of Barcelona's defense, his former club Lyon is crumbling at the back.

Three defeats and a draw in four games, 10 goals conceded: Lyon's bid for a top-three finish and a place in next season's Champions League has been seriously dented. Winning Sunday's home game against Saint-Etienne — they are bitter local rivals with 17 league titles between them — is more important than ever.

With fourth-placed Lyon six points adrift of third-placed Marseille — and seven behind second-placed Monaco — defeat will put coach Bruno Genesio's side in great difficulty. How he must wish he still had the commanding presence of Umtiti for the season's run-in.

Despite Lyon's flair for scoring goals, keeping them out is a big problem. Lyon has drawn or lost four times after leading 2-0.

Lyon drew 2-2 at Lille last Sunday, prompting a furious outburst from Genesio.

By midweek he had still not calmed down.

"I can't understand how you can ease up when you're 2-0 up. Football is the biggest school of humility there is," Genesio said. "What we showed against Lille in the second half goes too far against my vision of football and of sport in general."

Lyon's freefall is all the more peculiar because it immediately followed a 2-1 home win against PSG on Jan. 21. Lyon played with a verve and commitment which unsettled the runaway league leader.

What has followed in the four games since is the total opposite: complacency, lack of focus and a slack attitude when in control of matches.

Lyon was 2-0 up away to defending champion Monaco after 30 minutes on Feb. 4 — but still lost 3-2 against a team playing the second half with 10 men.

It's not tactics, either, because whether in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, the lack of discipline remains the same.

Lyon fullback Rafael knows a thing or two about discipline, having played under Manchester United's hugely successful coach Alex Ferguson. He is exasperated by his own team's shortcomings.

"It's not normal," he said, adding that some players were "too individualistic" against Lille. He inadvertently underlined a reason for Lyon's problems in defense: the attack itself.

Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay, Mariano Diaz and Bertrand Traore are a lethal blend of skill, vision, finishing and pace. They have scored 45 of Lyon's 56 league goals.

There is no argument against their talent, especially the technically gifted Fekir, but the way they play together causes an imbalance which impacts on the defense.

Diaz and Depay don't often pass to each other, and too often go for glory. Against Lille, a 5-on-2 break petered out when Depay shot from long distance rather than choosing an easy pass.

Such wastefulness often leaves Lyon vulnerable to counterattacks. The midfield gets overrun and the defense quickly becomes exposed.

Against Saint-Etienne, the front players will need to watch their passing.

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EMERY'S PLEA

One sure sign of a manager under pressure is when he pleads with fans for support.

PSG coach Unai Emery has done this ahead of Sunday's home game against traditional rival Marseille.

PSG faces Marseille twice at Parc des Princes — including in the French Cup on Wednesday — and then welcomes Real Madrid. Emery is under big pressure after PSG lost 3-1 at Madrid in the first leg of their last-16 match.

Emery's stock is increasingly low after PSG sloppily conceded two late goals against Madrid, with most of the blame centered on his selection choices.

Now he's turning to fans for help.

"Marseille and Real Madrid know they have to come to Paris, but they don't really know what they're going to be up against," Emery boldly predicted on the club's website, before drawing on the club's past. "PSG has beaten Marseille more than 20 times at home."

True.

But Marseille has won nine league titles to PSG's six, and also has something PSG desperately craves.

Marseille remains the only French club to have won the Champions League, back in 1993. For all its big spending, PSG has not gone beyond the quarterfinals since its Qatari owners QSI took charge seven years ago.

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More AP Ligue 1 coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Ligue1

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Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire

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