Lyon’s Rafael still red and relishing the prospect of a Champions League double over Manchester City
- Ex-Manchester United defender goes head-to-head with Man City again on Tuesday night
- Twin brother Fabio also playing in French Ligue 1
Nineteen games into the season and Manchester City have only lost once – at home to Olympique Lyonnais in their opening Champions League match in front of a largely derided 40,111 crowd, City’s lowest of the season.
The French side led 2-0 at half-time, with former Manchester United players Rafael Pereira da Silva and Memphis Depay among their best players on the night.
“A great night – one for all Manchester United fans to enjoy too,” Rafael said. “I’m still a United boy and some of my old teammates messaged me after the game, and I enjoyed the celebrations. I was the last to leave the field. Why shouldn’t you enjoy moments like that in football?”
Lyon, fourth in Ligue 1, were as spellbinding as the young Monaco team who had eliminated Pep Guardiola’s side in 2017.
Rafael thinks there is no secret to why they inflicted City’s only bloody nose this term. “We played with confidence and we played as a team. We counter-attacked and defended well. You have to do that against City because they have so many players who can beat you one against one.
“We were 2-0 at half-time and playing really well but it could have been three. We were a little surprised to be beating a team who’d not lost a game. They’re one of the best teams in the world, but we were not stunned because we know how good we can play. And why should I have been surprised? I have never lost at City.”
Rafael, who left Manchester in 2015 and hadn’t been back since, displayed his pleasure online, putting hearts around comments on social media which suggested he was still a United fan.
The two teams will meet again in Lyon on Tuesday, City top of their group with nine points and Lyon second with six, three ahead of Hoffenheim.
Rafael played 170 times for United between 2008 and 2015 – and had no intention of leaving a club where Sir Alex Ferguson had nurtured his talents.
“He (Ferguson) did everything he could to help me, even when things didn’t go well,” Rafael recalled. “In 2010-11 I made some mistakes and got injured a lot, but he never gave up on me. He renewed my contract when I wasn’t playing well. He saw how hard I was working and I would like to think I repaid him. At the start of 2012, he came to me and said: ‘You cannot be making mistakes any more. You are mature now’.”
The problems came when he didn’t have the same relationship with any subsequent United managers and Louis van Gaal cut him out of his plans completely.
“A difficult time,” Rafael conceded. “We didn’t get on.”
The versatile right-back from Petropolis, close to Rio de Janeiro was allowed to leave for a bargain £3 million (US$3.9 million, HK$30.2 million) fee. He’s now in his fourth season with Olympique Lyonnais.
“I’m very happy here,” he said. “Good club and a good city to live in for me and my family. I’m still learning some French, but the others understand me and that’s the main thing. The club give me confidence and the supporters like me. Every footballer is happy when they are playing all the time and playing well, but winning Ligue 1 will be difficult because of PSG. Their squad is huge. They can have Buffon and Di Maria on their bench.
Rafael concedes that Lyon are part of the chasing pack, but doesn’t believe PSG are untouchable. “Even though we lost [against them recently], I feel that we could beat PSG in a one-off game. We’re not scared of them, but over 38 games it’s very, very difficult.”
The 28-year-old expects to play his 112th Lyon game against Pep Guardiola’s side.
“We’re having a good season but maybe people don’t think that when they see we’re 15 points behind PSG. But, while we’re actually two points off second and we’re second in our Champions League group, three points head of the teams below. We beat Man City away and now we want to beat them at home.”
As well as the Brazilian, former Manchester United winger Memphis Depay is standing out at Lyon which Rafael puts down to a change in position.
“Memphis started here as a winger but I don’t see him as a winger. I see him as striker in the way he plays and holds the ball. He plays as a striker and he’s found his place here. He wasn’t brilliant when he arrived, but the move to a more central role has totally changed his game.”
Rafael still watches United.
“I watched the derby against City last week. That was hard and I don’t like to see United lose, but I do believe United are getting better again. They’re showing some of the fight that they had when they won trophies.” Rafael was part of that trophy-winning success along with his twin, Fabio. The pair recently came face to face on the field for the first time.
“Fabio joined Nantes this year and I played against him. We were on the opposite side of the field, but it still felt amazing for us. Our family didn’t know who to support. We drew 1-1.”
Now all eyes are on the sell-out encounter with Manchester City in Lyon’s smart new 60,000-seater home. Rafael relishes the challenge.
“City will be coming here angry because we beat them there,” he smiles, “so we have to beat them again. It won’t be easy, but nobody gave us a chance in Manchester.”