Marseille hold the aces in French title race, despite car trouble

RESULTS Sat Apr 17 Boulogne 1-2 Marseille, Auxerre 4-1 Lorient, Rennes 0-0 Nancy, Valenciennes 0-1 Le Mans, Nice 0-0 Lens, Grenoble 2-2 Sochaux, Bordeaux 2-2 Lyon Sun Apr 18 Montpellier 1-1 Toulouse, Lille 4-0 Monaco, Saint-Étienne 0-0 PSG

When Didier Deschamps took charge of Marseille last summer one could be forgiven for thinking he hopped in his Citreon C5 and rode the length and breadth of Europe sticking up posters that read: “Winners, L’OM needs you.” After all, Dédé was the last person to win the league with Marseille nearly 17 years ago when he captained them as a precocious 25-year-old water carrying midfielder. Since then, they’ve taken a leaf out of Otis Redding’s book, adapted it a bit and lost that winning feeling.

Thankfully though, Deschamps’s imaginary posters got the desired response. Marseille spent a staggering €41.3m on no fewer than 10 players, including Gabi Heinze, Souleymane Diawara, Lucho González and former West Ham United flop Édouard Cissé.

L’Équipe’s hacks - perhaps stranded in one of Monaco’s casinos on account of the volcanic ash - branded Marseille’s key signings ‘the Four Aces’.

In all, they have won nine league titles between them, adding experience to a group that, with the exception of Hatem Ben Arfa and Brandao, wasn’t used to picking up silverware.

“They are players who know how difficult it is to win things,” Deschamps said after Wednesday’s 1-0 victory over Sochaux. “They have a role on the pitch, but also one off it too."

“When you want a team to keep winning, it’s important to have winners. They must communicate that spirit and also what it takes to impose yourself at a high level. That is seen through words, exchanges, but above all through actions,” Deschamps added, clearly feeling vindicated by his summer strategy.

Since their victory in the League Cup final against Bordeaux on March 27, Marseille have swept all before them, opening up a five-point lead at the top of Le Championnat.

They have a swagger and a character that hasn’t been seen for years, as was evident on Saturday night.

L’OM were due in Boulogne for their fifth match in two weeks. The pesky volcanic ash meant that they had to fly to Auxerre and then take a four-hour bus journey north just to get to the ironically named Stade de la Libération, rendering an already marathon schedule a veritable Tour de France.

The fact Boulogne went into the game 19th in Ligue 1, mattered little. After all, Laurent Guyot’s men have picked up points against Bordeaux and Lyon in 2010, and are fighting for their lives, albeit quite unsuccessfully as their run of four defeats in five games amply demonstrated.

However, rather than a banana skin, this was an opportunity Marseille couldn’t afford to miss. Bordeaux were hosting Lyon in a re-match of their Champions League quarter-final, a re-match that would knock one if not both of L’OM’s seasoned rivals out of the title race. If Marseille put Boulogne to the sword, their 17 years of hurt would be closer to being over.

Little by little, though, the tension was mounting. Mamadou Niang, Ligue 1’s leading goalscorer, slapped a fan on his way out of Marseille’s training ground after the peasant put his mucky little hands on the Senegal international’s sparkling Ferrari 360.

Lucho promptly followed Niang’s lead, only he misjudged the turning out of the exit and scuffed his Audi R8 on the railings.

However, regardless of the pressure, L’OM - to paraphrase Deschamps - now had the winners to keep winning.

Marseille took the lead just before half-time in Boulogne when Mathieu Valbuena cut in from the right-hand side and rifled the ball past Jean-François Bédenik. Things got really interesting a little later though, when Boulogne equalised through Jérémy Blayac with just eight minutes remaining.

Rather than resign themselves to a draw, Marseille went looking for a win. Dédé had brought on Taye Taiwo for Niang midway through the second half and his introduction proved inspired.

The Nigeria international, who scored the winner against Lyon last month, fizzed a cross into the box in stoppage time, which found Brandao’s head and then poor Yoann Lachor’s hand, winning a last gasp penalty.

As the referee’s watch struck 95 minutes, Taiwo stepped up to the spot and beat Bédenik to secure the three points that preserved Marseille’s five-point lead at the top of Le Championnat.

“My players have the desire to get the best possible result in every match. We’re in top spot and we’ll do what we can to stay there,” Deschamps smiled in his post-match press conference. “It’s great to be in front and to be winning.”

Meanwhile, Bordeaux and Lyon were knocking seven bells out of each other and both ended up on the canvas, drawing 2-2 in a bad-tempered game that saw three players sent off in injury time.

“One draw, two losers,” read the headline in L’Équipe on Sunday morning. Bordeaux and Lyon are now 11 and nine points back respectively, the latter focusing on their Champions League semi-final with Bayern Munich, volcanic ash permitting.

The threat to Marseille’s title aspirations now comes from Auxerre whose impressive 4-1 victory over Lorient keeps them second, setting up a potential decider against Deschamps’s men in two weeks’ time.

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