Lyon forward Lisandro Lopez was Ligue 1's Player of the Year last season but he began this year looking a shadow of his former self. Lyon struggled in its worst start to a season for 15 years, earning just five points from its opening seven games, and Lisandro, sullen, sulky and only half-fit, seemed to embody the team's struggles.
Before last week's league match against Montpellier, Lisandro had only completed two of his 12 appearances this season. His regular substitutions late on in matches had become a source of tension with coach Claude Puel, whose hand he pointedly refused to shake following his 90th-minute withdrawal against Paris Saint-Germain (his eighth failure to complete the previous nine matches).
Against Montpellier, though, Puel kept Lisandro on and the Argentine striker rewarded him with both goals, the second a dramatic winner in injury-time, in a 2-1 win which pushed Lyon up to fifth in Ligue 1, only two points behind leaders Lille. "I decided to let him stay on for the full match so he wouldn't be in a bad mood after the game," Puel told a news conference after the game. If you want to know what goes in on in his head, ask him. He's a bit of a character and you have to accept that. We have a good relationship but sometimes it's not easy."
Puel wasn't the only one taking credit. Bernard Lacombe, Lyon's general manager and a former striker himself, visited Lisandro at the training-ground the day before the game. "I wanted to see if he was OK after the PSG match," he told L'Equipe. We didn't talk a lot but he did say to me, 'Bernard, I'll score two against Montpellier, I know I will.' And he was as good as his word."
Lisandro almost repeated the trick in Lyon's Champions League game against Hapoel Tel-Aviv on Tuesday night. He scored the opening goal and then his cheeky back-heel set up Alexandre Lacazette, 19, for his first European goal to secure a 2-2 draw. It was Lisandro's first assist of the season and, ironically, dumped Hapoel to bottom of the group allowing Benfica, rivals of his former club Porto, to qualify for the Europa League.
Lisandro could have been lost to the game long before he made his mark in Europe. Before he joined Porto from Argentina's Racing Club in 2005, he had almost quit football for good when he broke his foot on the day before he was due to make his debut for Racing, then coached by Ossie Ardiles. He decided to study for an economics degree and play for his hometown club Jorge Newbery, but a Racing scout persuaded him to come back to the club, and he scored eight minutes into his Premier League debut.
He was not so quick to find success when he first moved to Portugal. He scored seven goals in his debut season and was on the verge of being sent out on loan before he asked, and was granted, one more chance. He took advantage, forcing Benfica captain Nuno Gomes to admit, "If Lopez had been at Benfica, he probably would have been ditched after that first year." He went on to become Porto's second-highest scorer in Europe with 13 goals (behind Mario Jardel's 19) and was only allowed to move to Lyon, for a club-record €24 million ($31 million) in summer 2009, once Hulk was established as his replacement.
"Whether he cost €24 million or €200 million, it's not a problem for him, he is sure enough of himself to deal with all of that," Florian Maurice, a former Lyon striker and now scout for the club, told Surface. Sonny Anderson, another former player and now Lyon strikers' coach, is convinced that Lisandro's mentality is perfect for the rigors of top-level Champions League football. "He is a fighter, a winner," he told Lyon Foot. "The more chances he misses, the more he puts pressure on himself to do better, and the more he succeeds afterward. He has found his feet at Lyon." Lisandro was key in helping Lyon to the Champions League semifinals last season, with his all-around performance in their last-16 win over Real Madrid superb.
Perhaps his personality has counted against him at international level: he has only won seven caps for Argentina, where his claim to fame is that he was the player replaced so Lionel Messi could make his international debut against Hungary in 2005 (Messi was sent off three minutes later). "During my career things have not always been positive, but I can't allow myself to doubt, I have to score," he once told Ole. "I am a player who gives everything on the pitch. It isn't a case of my teammates on one side and me on the other. I am part of the team. I have no right to get special treatment."
That did not look the case when Lisandro initially rejected Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas's request to cut short his summer rehab in Argentina to join the squad for a preseason friendly tournament at the Emirates Stadium in London. Lisandro did not want to travel, but Aulas insisted. Lisandro was not happy. Injuries to his Achilles, thigh and calf also contributed to his barren start to the campaign but now, with eight goals in his last 10 appearances, something has clicked. Lyon averages one goal per match with Lisandro in the side, and 1.67 per match with him.
"When he arrived, people said he couldn't communicate, that he never laughed,' said Anderson. "I said I couldn't care less if he scored every weekend." The Lyon management still don't seem to know how to get the best out of Lisandro, or what makes him tick, but they are all agreed on one thing: Lyon can only challenge for the title if Lisandro is on form.