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Cavani 7/10 for PSG in Liverpool tune-up


Nabil Fekir, Lyon's answer to Messi, leads Ligue 1 hopefuls into contention

They've gone 12 matches unbeaten, scored 24 goals in their last seven games, are on a club record 651 minutes with conceding, and have won 5-0 in each of their last three away trips. They also have a front three which has scored more league goals than any other front three in Europe.

So, who are they: Barcelona? Paris Saint-Germain? Bayern Munich? No. The answer is Lyon.

Since Nabil Fekir's last minute free kick sealed a 3-2 win over Monaco in mid-October, they have been unstoppable.

Things would have probably been much different for Les Gones and their manager Bruno Genesio had that game finished 2-2, though. Genesio was under a lot of pressure, struggling to get the best out of a young but very talented squad, and at the time, Lyon were only eighth in the table with just 13 points which included three wins, four draws and one defeat away to PSG. They were six points behind Monaco in second and nine behind the leaders. Genesio, it was said, had five games to save his job.

First came Monaco, and the coach and his team built on that miraculous 3-2 victory with seven wins from eight in all competitions.

Fekir has been immense, with 11 goals in 11 matches in Ligue 1. Last season, the team played in a 4-3-3 formation perfectly suited to striker Alexandre Lacazette, who left for Arsenal in the summer. This season, Lyon play in a 4-2-3-1 system made for Fekir, who has a free role as a second striker.

For most of the campaign, the 24-year-old has had to do a lot on his own: carrying the team, creating, scoring and leading. He has been Lyon's equivalent of Lionel Messi for Barcelona. In recent weeks, however, the rest of the team have stepped up and raised their game as well.

Nabil Fekir is a star in the making but Lyon have also been boosted by a collective effort in recent weeks.

Memphis Depay, who was dropped earlier in the season, now has seven goals and two assists in his last seven matches in all competitions. Mariano Diaz, the striker signed from Real Madrid in the summer having never started in La Liga for the Spanish giants, has been efficient with 10 Ligue 1 goals and he has now started to play more with his teammates.

Between them, Fekir (11), Depay (eight) and Diaz (10) have scored 29 league goals so far, one more than the famed "MCN" of Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar at PSG, and four more than Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling at Manchester City.

The most unexpected improvement, however, is the defensive solidity found by the team. After conceding 14 goals in the first 10 matches of the season -- keeping just two clean sheets -- they have only conceded three in their last nine, with seven straight clean sheets in all competitions.

Marcelo, recruited from Besiktas in the summer, is a very important part of it. The 30-year-old Brazilian defender is not the quickest or the most mobile but his experience and reading of the game have been precious. He is the boss -- whether he has Jeremy Morel or Mouctar Diakhaby next to him, Kenny Tete or Rafael on the right, and Ferland Mendy or Marcal on the left, any back four Lyon have is now very solid. As a unit, the players realised they had to do more individually to defend better collectively.

It is no surprise Lyon's run also coincides with the rise of Houssem Aouar. At 19, the French midfielder is the new gem to come out of the club's renowned Lyon academy. He is an amazing talent with a great future ahead of him. So much of what he does is clever, precise and inspired; his partnerships with Lucas Tousart, 20, in a midfield two -- or with Tousart and Tanguy Ndombele, also 20, in a three when Fekir is out -- protect the defence and inspire the attack. Aouar can also play wide as an attacking midfielder or even as a No. 10 -- his through ball for Diaz in Sunday's 5-0 win at Nice was magnificent.

Lyon invested well last summer following a mass exodus of players -- Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Maxime Gonalons among others -- but also brought through the next generation from the academy. Aouar was joined by 18-year-old Myziane Maolida, Amine Gouiri, 17, and Willem Geubbels, a year younger. Let's not forget either that Depay is still only 23, while Bertrand Traore, Tete and Mendy are 22 and Maxwell Cornet is 21.

Genesio's men, who host Lille on Wednesday in Ligue 1, are in second place, ahead of Monaco on goal difference and a point clear of Marseille who are also on a great run. Those three will fight for second place behind PSG, but Lyon will be confident they can edge ahead of their rivals.

They have also impressed in Europe, qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League with the final in -- you've guessed it --- Lyon on May 16. The future is certainly bright.

Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.


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