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Everyone at Olympique Lyonnais is expecting something special from Alexandre Lacazette in their UEFA Europa League semi-final second leg against Ajax on Thursday night. It will have to be a breathtaking feat, with his side trailing 4-1 from the first match in Amsterdam on the back of a calamitous defensive display.
Many at the club feel that, tough task though it is, it is a question of destiny with a summer move—to the Premier League, with Arsenal and Liverpool oft-mooted destinations, or to La Liga, with Atletico Madrid strongly linked with a deal, as per Cadena Cope (in Spanish)—seeming closer than ever.
By pulling around such an unpromising situation, Lacazette would crown a career at his local club, which has encompassed rising from the academy ranks to becoming one of Europe’s most coveted goalscorers. He is one of only four players—Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane are the other three—to have hit the 20-goal mark in one of Europe’s top five leagues for three successive seasons.
Going into Thursday’s game, Lacazette has scored 123 times for Lyon in 272 games. When one considers he broke into the first team as a winger under Claude Puel, it’s even more impressive; he has 107 goals in 180 games since the switch to centre-forward, after the iconic Lisandro Lopez moved on. In those last three campaigns, the 25-year-old has notched 85 in 126 (72 in 95 in Ligue 1 alone).
So it is natural that Europe’s finest should be interested. The possibility of Atletico makes sense—more of which later—but then so does England, and not only because of the recent history of players from France adapting quickly across the channel, with Ligue 1’s physicality marking it out as the ideal little brother league for the Premier League.
Lacazette’s further development, beyond the numbers, has been clear under current coach Bruno Genesio, who has often used his man as a solo striker for the first time. His flourishing in that role (and he scored 15 of his 21 Ligue 1 goals last season after Genesio took over at Christmas, incidentally) has clear implications for his suitability for the Premier League.
That could be especially relevant to teams like Arsenal and Liverpool, both lacking an authoritative, true centre-forward. His first-team grounding out wide is evident in his style now, and it gives him the drop on many European forwards with possible Premier League pretensions.
Staying at Lyon as long as he has allowed Lacazette to morph into a complete player, as Gael Berger, who covers OL for the city’s Radio Scoop, told Bleacher Report. “He’s played in pretty much every position in attack,” Berger said. “He came into the team on the right of a 4-3-3, then played in a 4-4-2 with Bafetimbi Gomis, and in the same system but with a different sort of player in Clinton N’Jie, before going into the centre of a 4-3-3 (under Genesio).”
That all-round game is what gives Lacazette a convincing CV, according to Berger. “He’s a forward who could adapt to several different leagues. He can score, he can make the play for others—a bit like (previous wearer of the Lyon No. 10 shirt) Karim Benzema, even if they’re different players. He’s a very good finisher, of course, with great all-round technique.”
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When we talk about topping off his work at Lyon, it is because there seems little doubt that the moment to move has now arrived. Lacazette certainly thinks so, telling Canal Plus in a February interview with Canal Football Club (h/t Le Parisien, in French) that the summer would be “the moment where I’ll have to have a change of scenery and try something else.”
In that Canal Plus interview, Lacazette confirmed more than one thing that we already knew; not just that the right time to go was here, but that he has specific criteria for his destination. It won’t be leaving for the sake of leaving, just for a change, to try something different.
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Everything about the way that he plays—with great industry, but with honed purpose—tells us that he is somebody who has fixed views of his objectives. Further into that interview, he confirmed rumours of Barcelona’s previous interest in him. We’re talking about one of the biggest and best clubs in the world, and one where his close friend and fellow academy product Samuel Umtiti was also going.
Lacazette, seeing the MSN strike trio in his way, wasn’t keen. “It wasn’t in concordance with what I wanted,” he told Canal, “because what I wanted was to play.”
That resolve to hold out for the perfect move is indicative of the character that has made him so respected by those around the club. Berger believes that Lacazette’s attitude is a wise one.
“He’s right,” Berger said. “He’s well-loved at Lyon, a leader, an undisputed starter who can carry the team, so it’s logical that that’s what he would look for elsewhere. If he was coming from the bench, even at a huge club, he’d be better staying at Lyon, where he plays in Europe every year. If he leaves, it will be to a club of a higher standing.”
That does, in a sense, limit Lacazette’s options. He wants Champions League football—which puts the Arsenal hypothesis, especially, on unexpectedly shaky ground—but he also wants to be a pivotal player, at a bigger club than Lyon, which narrows the scope of possibilities.
The situation of Michy Batshuayi at Chelsea shows how isolating picking a not-quite suitable destination could be—and if the Belgian, at 23, can perhaps afford a year of relative inactivity then Lacazette, who will be 26 at the end of the month, most certainly cannot.
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So, even if Atletico perhaps remain favourites to seal a deal, with Cope suggesting as early as in March that an agreement had been reached pending the lifting of the club’s player registration ban, then England is not to be ruled out for a player with a prodigious competitive streak and a not-inconsiderable toughness. “He would be comfortable in a team that keeps the ball,” argued Berger. “Arsenal, for example, seems like it might be a good fit.”
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With that said, his versatility (and industry) would be welcomed by Los Rojiblancos, looking to upgrade in attack. “I could imagine him doing well there,” Berger added, “especially with Antoine Griezmann, with whom he gets on very well.”
It’s a mouthwatering prospect; the pair have known each other for a decade after playing in various national team age groups. Moreover, Cope’s spring report on a possible deal implied that Lacazette might be a complement to, rather than a replacement for, France’s star forward.
What is clear is that Lyon will miss him. The club’s supporters, stung by that admission of a potential departure on Canal, whistled him during February’s 4-0 win over Nancy, as reported by So Foot (in French), with some carrying a banner that said “before talking about wanting to go elsewhere, make the club that made you win (something).”
It was harsh on a player that, as Berger told us, “has already marked the history of the club.” It’s hard to argue. To do so one more time on Thursday, though—as he did with the hat-trick that sealed Lyon an automatic Champions League place at Monaco’s expense around this time last year—would be a fitting full stop on a club legend’s time before that hard-earned transfer.