BERLIN – Argentine forward Lisandro Lopez, is Lyon's motor and true unsung hero (Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images).
A party is never a party without its host. It was just before 10:50 p.m. local time on Saturday night at the Stade Gerland, and the affluent, but notoriously stand-offish city in eastern France was ready to get some Oliver Cheatham on, with its stylish team cruising to victory over Montpellier, having qualified for the Champions League group stage earlier in the week. Then came the ultimate cold shower, as Lyon's biggest star tumbled to earth. Rarely can the atmosphere have drained so quickly from an arena without the home side conceding a goal.
After an awkward challenge with Montpellier defender Vitorino Hilton, the home side's iconic striker Lisandro Lopez slumped to the turf - and stayed there. "With Licha (Lisandro's nickname), it's rare to see him on the ground and for him not to get back up," said Lyon defender Aly Cissokho. As Lisandro was stretchered off - with his face screwed up in pain - a deathly hush fell over the Gerland faithful that feared the worst.
The worst, mercifully, didn't materialize. The presumed break of Lisandro's horribly contorted ankle turned out to be only a severe twist, but nevertheless it's an injury to keep the Argentinian out of action for "at least four weeks", according to the latest bulletin from Lyon's medical department.
If Lyon was grateful for the relative lightness of the punishment, the shock had already been felt. How can one replace the irreplaceable?
Lyon's captain Cris, one of his fellow South American closest friends at the club, recently described Lisandro as "a warrior, a matador. He runs everywhere, he's a great goalscorer and, as well, he helps us to defend well."
Now beginning his third season in Ligue 1, Lisandro still doesn't speak French, using Cris as an interpreter when he wants to get something across to his teammates - as he did at half-time in the Bernabeu in March 2010, after which Lyon went on to knock out Real Madrid on its home patch en route to the Champions League semifinal. Yet this modest man's immense personality and his superhuman efforts on the pitch speak for him, to the extent that coach Remi Garde has made him captain while Cris has recently been absent through injury.
It has always been thus since the 28-year-old from Rafael Obligado, a rural village some 150 miles outside Buenos Aires, arrived in Europe back in 2005. Lisandro has scored at a very useful rate of one every two games since, but it is really his tireless industry that has won hearts wherever he has been. A trophy-laden spell at Porto saw him at the heart of a side, along with fellow Argentinian Lucho Gonzalez, at least as dear to the Estadio do Dragao's public as Jose Mourinho's 2004 European champions. Even though Radamel Falcao's extraordinary goal output has since endeared him to the faithful, Porto missed the sheer will of the Colombian's predecessor in the number nine shirt when the chips were down.
Lisandro Lopez has found a comfortable home at Stade de Gerland (Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images).
While Porto eventually moved on, Lyon must wrack its brains to find a short-term fix - with the possibility of a temporary switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 entirely reflecting the impossibility of directly replacing him. Lisandro has to cope with a dual disappointment, having been recalled to the Argentina side for the first time in almost two years for the upcoming friendlies with Venezuela and Nigeria. His only goal for his country, a rattling cross-shot in the 3-2 win over Russia, came on his last appearance for the Albiceleste, in August 2009.
Lisandro was dropped as a consequence of indulging in the unthinkable - criticizing then-head coach Diego Maradona. Having a dig at the boss is a flawed enough piece of behavior, but when that boss is a living deity and a team has as much world-class striking talent as Argentina, it's tantamount to career suicide. Yet among the plethora of talent including the inimitable Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Diego Milito to name just a handful, Lisandro has a spirit that sets him apart.
Messi should, of course, be untouchable despite his failure to reproduce his Barcelona form on a regular basis, and Aguero is making a strong case to follow suit with his performances for both club and country. Yet Lisandro had (and may still have) a good chance to prove himself a viable foil for these two in an attacking trident. He has played all three positions in the front three at club level with great success, maintaining his goal output - which extends to an enviable Champions League scoring record of 22 in 46 matches - even when deployed out wide.
As Buenos Aires-based journalist Sebastian Garcia of Mundo Albiceleste points out, Lisandro is at the distinct disadvantage of being under the radar for many back home, not having played for Boca Juniors or River Plate. Yet his desire, together with the ability to finish, create or simply tire defenders until they are fit to drop, has endeared him to fans wherever he has been. He has the quality of a €24m ($35m) striker, without the ego of one.
Lisandro's indomitable spirit was never more in evidence than last season at Lyon when, struggling with a succession of nagging injuries and against a background of behind-the-scenes strife, Lisandro hit 17 goals in 27 games to ensure Champions League qualification was just about scraped. In keeping with a classy character, he was one of the few big names from the Lyon locker room not to aim a parting shot at the now-departed (and highly controversial) manager, Claude Puel.
Back in Argentina, Lisandro's home village was named after the 19th century poet and playwright of the same name. Obligado's poetry detailed the life of the gaucho, the cowboy of the pampas. His most famous character was Santos Vega, a tireless troubadour who wandered the countryside, taking all comers in 8 Mile-style singing competitions. Lisandro is like a modern-day version, his power undimmed by his context. He has always been a star, but Argentina is only just beginning to realize it.