April 20, 2024

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Marseille weather storm and revive their Champions League ambitions | Ligue 1

1 min read
Marseille weather storm and revive their Champions League ambitions | Ligue 1

In like a lion and out like a lamb. The old adage about weather in March has been a perfect description of Marseille’s form and their chances of qualifying for the Champions League over the last month.

Marseille were floundering at the end of February. What had looked like an iron grip on a Champions League place suddenly seemed uncertain after home defeats to Clermont and Monaco, as well as a draw against a Troyes side who have not exactly set the league alight this season. There was also a heavy loss to Nice in the Coupe de France quarter-finals, a result that was galling not only for its margin – 4-1 at the Allianz Riviera – but also for the fact that Nice had eliminated PSG, clearing the path for an unlikely winner in the competition.

They looked sharper by the middle of March, beating Brest 4-1 away and then turning in a fine display to beat Nice 2-1 in their league meeting. But, with a host of key players coming back from a busy international break, their trip north to play Saint-Étienne this weekend looked like a dangerous fixture.

Sainté have been enjoying a mini-revival under Pascal Dupraz. Having lost just once, to PSG, in their previous eight matches, they were a threat. The game was delayed due to some lion-like weather. An unseasonable snowstorm descended on the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard and led to the game being pushed back from Saturday evening to Sunday afternoon.

Arkadiusz Milik, who has been in imperious form for Marseille, scoring 12 goals already in 2022, was ruled out after picking up an injury on international duty. He will be back soon – perhaps even for the first leg of their Conference League quarter-final against PAOK on Thursday – but, given the struggles of other players to find the net, he looked to be a crucial miss.

Off the pitch, Milik’s clashes with Jorge Sampaoli have been the stuff of legend, the Pole being particularly incensed by the arrival of Cédric Bakambu in January. But the two seemed to have reached an agreement, however tenuous. With four goals in five matches in March, his form has picked up, perhaps even spurred on by the arrival of another striker in Bakambu.

Marseille weather storm and revive their Champions League ambitions | Ligue 1
Arkadiusz Milik appears to have been spurred on by his clashes with Sampaoli. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Marseille were also without the suspended Luan Peres. The Brazilian is diligent at the back and provides much of the cover necessary to give Dimitri Payet freedom in attack. In his absence, Sead Kolasinac started at left-back and spent the first 45 minutes being tortured by Denis Bouanga. The former Arsenal man was partly at fault for the opening goal, though the Marseille keeper Pau López had a shocker, letting Bouanga’s weak shot trickle below his body and into the net.

Payet equalised from the penalty spot, and Sampaoli changed things at half-time – replacing Kolasinac with winger Cengiz Ünder and going to a back three. The visitors went on to win 4-2 thanks to a shocking own goal from Timothée Kolodziejczak, another penalty from Bamba Dieng and a slotted finish from Amine Harit.

The game was closer than the result suggests, but the visitors showed an adaptability that has eluded them previously. Earlier in the season, Marseille exuded an almost manic energy, attacking hell for leather but coming unstuck at times, including a memorable 3-2 defeat at home to Lens. After that defeat, the team became more prosaic and picked up a series of clean sheets in November and December. They have shown flashes of their old exuberance since – including a 5-2 win over Angers in early February – but by and large, Sampaoli has kept his team on a shorter leash in the last few months. They have even looked listless at times.

Marseille were hardly the stuff of dreams defensively against Sainté but, after veering from one extreme to the other, Sampaoli seems to have finally gotten things right. This team has the talent to react and be flexible during a game, something their fellow top-three contenders do not. In Boubacar Kamara, Valentin Rongier, Guendouzi and even William Saliba, Sampaoli has players who can play in multiple positions, allowing him to make tactical shifts when it’s apparent that a given approach – for example, playing Kolasinac at left-back – is not working.

The other three contenders for the Champions League places – Rennes, Strasbourg and Nice – all have their own weaknesses. Rennes are thin defensively and would be in trouble if Nayef Aguerd or Hamari Traoré picked up an injury. Strasbourg lack depth in terms of creativity – witness their recent struggles while Adrien Thomasson has been injured. And Nice, while better organised than the other two, are also far less flexible. Christophe Galtier is a superb coach, but of late he has rarely deviated from his preferred 4-4-2.

Just over a year into his reign, Sampaoli seems to have realised how to maximise his squad’s talent. There are doubts lingering over the team’s future – a looming transfer ban, and the loan returns of Harit, Saliba and Ünder – but with Dimitri Payet’s contract looking like less of an albatross, and Milik, Maxime López and Guendouzi having agreed to make their loan deals permanent, fans have reasons to be optimistic.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results


Strasbourg 1-0 Lens

Clermont 2-3 Nantes

Metz 1-2 Monaco

Montpellier 1-2 Brest

St Etienne 2-4 Marseille

Troyes 1-0 Reims

Lyon 3-2 Angers
PSG 5-1 Lorient

Nice 1-1 Rennes

Lille 0-0 Bordeaux 

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Talking points

PSG silenced some criticism as they ran out 5-1 winners against Lorient. The visitors, normally so well organised under Christophe Pelissier, were torn to ribbons by the front three of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Lionel Messi. The Frenchman scored a double and set up the other three goals – two for Neymar and one for Messi. If this is PSG’s reaction to having “nothing to play for,” it will make their matches more entertaining for neutrals in the next two months.

Kylian Mbappé scored twice for PSG in their 5-1 win over Lorient.
Kylian Mbappé scored twice for PSG in their 5-1 win over Lorient. Photograph: John Berry/Getty Images

Lyon looked likely to drop more points at home against Angers on Sunday. Missing Karl Toko Ekambi through illness and the brilliant young midfielder Maxence Caqueret to injury, they were pegged back twice and seemed to be heading for another disappointing draw. Enter Tetê – the Brazilian winger signed from Shakhtar Donetsk on a short-term deal on Friday. He needed just 134 seconds to score the winner. Lyon are unlikely to challenge Rennes and Marseille for the Champions League places but Tetê gives them another attacking option, which they have lacked this season. On this evidence, he could be the difference when it comes to advancing in Europe – they play West Ham in the Europa League quarter-finals this week – or securing a top six-finish in the league.

Strasbourg lack the resources of the other clubs vying for the top three but, as they showed this weekend while beating Lens, it’s all about the results. They have struggled to score lately without the injured Adrien Thomasson, drawing against Reims and Lorient, but they showed a combative side against Lens and recorded a vital 1-0 win, taking them above Nice in the table on goal difference. With Lyon to come at the weekend, Julien Stéphan’s team still have plenty to play for this season. Their run-in will be worth watching.

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