Tight title race as Marseille gain at Lyon’s expense

Sitting in a humble little establishment along the waterfront in Marseille on Saturday after a wedding, The French Connection was looking for inspiration – and, after one too many glasses of vin rouge, some dignity.

Seeing a plate of Moules Marinieres still untouched in front of the blog, a straggly-haired man with a face like a pack of pork and apple sausages tried to engage in some harmless small talk.  His name was René and like a cold Parisien or someone just a little worse for wear, The French Connection tried in vain to avoid eye contact.

That is until the not-to-be-deterred René tried with some success to compare the now cold and unappetising Moules Marinieres with the current situation at the top of Ligue 1. “The more open the mussel,” he opined, “the better the season.”

Having initially thought René quite unstable and worthy of being sectioned under the mental health act, The French Connection thanked him for his bizarrely illuminating gnomic gastronomic anecdote. There was clearly some method in this man’s madness.

A cursory glance at L’Équipe revealed that with just 10 games remaining this season, the title race was indeed wide open. In fact, there were now just three points separating first and sixth place in the table.

Cries were heard from the press boxes up and down the country as journalists and commentators pinched themselves to check that it was in fact real. And with good reason too, as in seven of the last 11 years in France, the gap at the top at this stage of the season was 15 points or more.

RESULTS Sat Mar 20 Auxerre 2-1 Le Mans, Boulogne 2-0 Lorient, Rennes 4-1 Toulouse, Grenoble 0-0 Monaco, Nice 1-0 PSG, St. Etienne 0-0 Nancy, Lens 0-0 Sochaux Sun Mar 21 Bordeaux 3-1 Lille, Montpellier 2-1 Valenciennes, Marseilles 2-1 Lyon

And to make things that little bit more intriguing, this weekend featured what a French bunch of Sky Sports producers would no doubt call a Super Dimanche.

Top of the table Bordeaux played fourth-placed Lille while Lyon travelled to Marseille with November’s entertaining yet utterly absurd 5-5 draw still fresh in everyone’s minds. “It will be decisive,” Marseille midfielder Benoît Cheyrou told France Football last Thursday.

“Above all," continued the brother of former Liverpool flop Bruno, "if there is a winner as that team will then be in the ascendancy both mathematically and psychologically.” 

"Psst! Benny! Build it up in the press!"

Cheyrou was perhaps still a little bit scarred from Lyon’s last trip to the Vélodrome in May 2009, when Marseille suffered a heartbreaking 3-1 defeat that effectively ended their chances of winning Ligue 1 for the first time in 16 years.

Lyon’s goalscorers that day, Karim Benzema and Juninho, are no longer around and while Claude Puel’s current side have started 2010 better than anyone else in Ligue 1 the consensus is - even among Bordeaux players like Marouane Chamakh - that Marseille are the most serious challengers to Les Girondins’ crown this season.  

So Sunday night’s game was another acid test of Marseille’s credentials. The first such examination came on Thursday when Didier Deschamps’ side had the chance to exact revenge on Benfica – nearly 20 years after Vata’s imitation of Diego Maradona’s Hand of God infamously knocked L’OM out of the Champions League semi-finals.

The occasion this time was the last 16 of the Europa League, but Marseille were surprisingly knocked out again, leaving Deschamps hurt and under pressure.

Progress to the quarter-finals of a major (if often derided) European competition would have surely taken attention away from Marseille’s recent stuttering form in Ligue 1. L’OM had drawn their last three games in the League, making Sunday’s clash with Lyon all the more important for France’s best-supported team.

And yet ever since the winter break, there has been the distinct feeling that Deschamps has actually found what really makes Marseille tick.

HOW DESCHAMPS' MARSEILLE WORK

In the summer, he inherited from Eric Gerets a talented but ultimately frustrating side that played a 4-3-3 formation with the accent on solidity in midfield. Whereas the Belgian tactician tended to use two anchormen and a playmaker, Deschamps has inverted the midfield triangle.

Former West Ham midfielder Édouard Cissé is now the only designated holding player, while Cheyrou and summer signing Lucho González are pushed further forward and charged with participating in the attacks, where the frustrating but richly talented Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Valbuena flank the versatile Mamadou Niang.

Deschamps’ pièce de résistance has been in converting a reluctant Stéphane Mbia into a makeshift centre-back, taking advantage of the Cameroonian midfielder’s height and strength in the tackle to shore up a defence missing Gabriel Heinze’s presence.

And Didi’s efforts have borne fruit. Marseille are averaging more points, scoring more goals and conceding fewer than in the first half of the season, despite Steve Mandanda saving just 63.5% of shots on goal, the worst record in Ligue 1. 

"Yay! It worked!"

So as kick-off approached on Sunday, there were grounds for optimism, but the pressure hadn’t diminished. Bordeaux, Auxerre and Montpellier had all won, meaning a defeat would leave Marseille six points off the pace.

Deschamps was also very concerned that Thursday’s efforts would ultimately cost his side while Cheyrou, whose performances this season earned him a long overdue call-up to the France national team, was ruled out along with Fabrice Abriel and Bakari Koné.

However, Lyon had significant problems of their own. Friday’s Champions League quarter-final draw, which pitted them against Bordeaux, papered over one rather large and unsavoury crack.

Speaking to L’Équipe on Wednesday, a disgruntled Sidney Govou revealed that he wanted to leave Lyon in the summer after falling out with the club’s management. Lyon had stripped Govou of the captain’s armband last October after a report in Le Progres claimed he had been drunk at a tennis tournament.

“I have no relationship [with Puel],” he whined. “I don’t like his man-management. I know you can’t let the players do what they want, but I regret the lack of understanding between us.”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Puel had more than his fair share of injury problems to deal with too, as he was forced to drop Jérémy Toulalan - Lyon’s midfield metronome - back into defence in place of Jean-Alain Boumsong.

His attempts to downplay the bearing the match might eventually have on the title race were also unconvincing as Bordeaux – who were by now five points in front of them - also have a game in hand, as do Marseille.

And after becoming the first Lyon manager in seven years not to win the League last season – something even the hapless former Portsmouth manager Alain Perrin couldn’t screw up – Puel is in a Manuel Pellegrini-type situation where anything other than a major breakthrough in Europe will not be tolerated if the Ligue 1 title doesn’t follow.

So it wasn’t entirely surprising that Sunday’s encounter was almost the polar opposite of November’s memorable 5-5 draw. As is often the case between two teams of a high level, it was the trees and not the wood that stood out; the individuals were the ones who ultimately proved decisive, not the collective.

Having weathered a storm in the first half, Marseille took the lead thanks to a looping shot from Charles Kaboré after 68 minutes. But Lyon looked worthy of a goal. They had struck the woodwork for the 13th time this season in the first half and their equaliser - a powerful Bafétimbi Gomis header off a Kim Kallstrom free-kick in the 81st minute - had clearly been coming.

So you can imagine how the Lyon jaw dropped when barely 60 seconds later, Taye Taiwo, Marseille’s Nigerian full-back, bombed forward and launched a missile of a shot that beat Hugo Lloris and quite possibly destroyed Claude Puel’s chances of winning the title and keeping his job beyond the end of this season. The match ended 2-1 and Marseille had their revenge for last May.

"Taiwo... Two-one!"

“The players are getting to know each other better and better, and I’m starting to get to know them better and better as well,” Deschamps smiled after the game. Marseille are now fourth in Ligue 1, three points behind Bordeaux – who they face in the French Cup final on Saturday.

However, the question on everyone’s lips today is: Having captained the last Marseille side to win the League in 1993, can Deschamps now coach the next one?

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