Barcelona’s last-16 rendezvous with Lyon was destined to be an exercise in disparity.
The dependable Lionel Messi distinguished himself from his perpetually frustrating central creative counterpart, Memphis Depay, and a Barcelona side rich in continental pedigree was juxtaposed against a Lyon squad littered with young and inexperienced players.
Of all the differences on display Tuesday, however, a contrast in the midfield was the most glaring. To the surprise of many who haven’t been afforded the chance to see Lyon in action this season, it didn’t benefit the presumed favorites.
Despite an unrelenting second-half push from the visitors, Lyon held on at their plush digs for a scoreless stalemate, and among all the commendable performances, Tanguy Ndombele’s stood out.
Blessed with a hulking frame, technical adroitness, and the vision for a perfect through ball, downhill runner Ndombele had little trouble with Barcelona’s aging midfield. Angular metronome Sergio Busquets was fine, if not particularly effective despite completing more than 100 passes; Sergi Roberto was largely uninvolved; Ivan Rakitic showed worrying glimpses of a player who can no longer sustain the pace of an opponent like Lyon.
This comes as little surprise to the Barcelona brass. Frenkie de Jong will make a €75-million move to the Camp Nou in the summer to line up alongside Arthur, who missed Tuesday’s match through injury, and Adrien Rabiot is expected to make the switch on a free transfer. Ernesto Valverde’s midfield appears set for a decade to come. Now, clubs that failed to enlist De Jong’s prodigious services may turn their attention to Ndombele.
The 22-year-old narrowly beat a fitness test to play against the Blaugrana, and he rose to the occasion.
In the opening stanza, he had the second-most passes of any player on the pitch and registered more successful dribbles than the entire Barcelona side combined. Alongside fellow emerging Frenchman Houssem Aouar in a two-man pivot at the base of Bruno Genesio’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Ndombele was tasked with cushioning the backline while swiftly moving the ball forward into attacking positions.
Ndombele is also eerily composed in possession with a tranquil edge reminiscent of Yaya Toure. When Aouar surged forward, Ndombele stayed put. When Barcelona’s flat-footed midfield permitted, he marauded through the middle of the park, sprinkling in a silky step-over or sleek spin when required.
Before coming off in the 84th minute for Pape Cheikh, Ndombele completed 87 percent of his passes and five successful dribbles, and he collected a tandem of tackles. He set the tone for a side expected to lose, and he was the engine of a team that needed the guidance.
In a match full of contrasts, the difference in performance between midfield menace Ndombele and his positional peers proved the greatest of all.