Anybody needing evidence of the gulf that now separates once-great rivals Paris-Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille need only have watched the final round of Ligue 1 matches last weekend.
At Parc des Princes, a PSG side with nothing to play for trounced Nantes 4-0 and celebrated yet another successful season with their latest ‘on est champions!’ fireworks display. If it felt familiar it’s because we always knew it would end like this.
PSG may have crashed out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals for the fourth successive season, but domestically they are more dominant than ever. They picked up the Ligue 1 crown in record time, finished 31pts ahead of second-placed Lyon and are near-certainties to make it five league titles in a row when next season kicks off in August.
Their eight games after they clinched the 2015-16 title told us as much about their supremacy as the previous 30: with nothing to play for PSG won six of eight dead rubbers (W6 D1 L1), running up a +2.63 goal difference per game.
They're so much stronger than everybody else that their form isn't affected by getting out the holiday brochures – metaphorically and literally: in April a group of their players made light of jetlag by swanning off for a 48-hour midweek break to Las Vegas, returning in time to thrash Rennes 4-0 at the weekend.
In contrast, their fierce old rivals Marseille – who face PSG in the French Cup final at Stade de France on Saturday night – laboured to a final-day 1-1 draw at bottom club Troyes. The point was obvious: it was the same Troyes side that PSG had hammered 9-0 to claim the title in mid-March. “Worrying until the last,” was how sports daily L’Equipe summed up the latest underwhelming moment in a disappointing 2015-16.
Marseille finished 13th, their worst position since 2001 – yet it is their off-field tale of chaos that reveals how deep the club’s problems run.
You’d need a hardback book to fully document their travails, but lowlights include: manager Marcelo Bielsa resigning after the first game of the season, successor Michel getting sacked in April, owner Margarita-Louis Dreyfus putting the club up for sale and failing to find a buyer yet; fans protesting at virtually every home game; sections of Stade Velodrome being closed following crowd trouble; and police continuing their investigations into the alleged involvement of local crime syndicates in recent player transfers.
Now that the two clubs are operating on totally different planes – PSG competing for European glory, Marseille barely keeping their heads above water in France – some of PSG’s expensively-assembled players may need a pep talk to be reminded exactly what this rivalry used to mean. It is all a far cry from the late 1980s and 1990s when PSG vs l'OM was one of Europe’s genuinely great battles.
In those days before the Bosman ruling, when the world’s leading players were spread more evenly across Europe, the two clubs built a series of wonderful sides that rivalled the best on the continent.
From 1989 to 1998 their list of honours was magnificent: between them they picked up five league titles, four French Cups, two French League Cups, a Champions League, a European Cup Winners’ Cup and reached two other European finals.
Fuelled by France’s pay-TV boom, audacious transfer coups and a north vs south, rich vs poor sub-text, the clubs’ one-upmanship drove them forward. Marseille, the southern port city that has never felt truly French – where, ironically, La Marseillaise is more likely to be booed than in any other city in France – loved taking on the bourgeoisie, and for a time did so in spectacular style.
In front of a national audience riveted by the narrative, PSG and l’OM traded blows, barbs and insults as they vied for supremacy on a weekly and seasonal basis.
The rivalry even spilled over to the national team. Players from the two clubs dominated the France squad, and by the time les Bleus embarked on their 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign clans had emerged.
Disputes centred on PSG talisman David Ginola’s inability to pin down a regular place in the starting line-up were the final straw: France lost their final two qualifiers at home to Israel (2-3) and Bulgaria (1-2), letting slip a commanding lead at the head of the group to miss out on the finals.
PSG and l’OM were less successful in the late 1990s and 2000s but the rivalry remained just as fierce. One player that lived it from the inside was ex-Fulham striker Steve Marlet, who played for Marseille between 2003 and 2005. He now views events from the other end of the country as sporting director of Red Star, officially Paris’ second club having finished fifth in Ligue 2 in 2015/16.
“When I was playing for Marseille it was the biggest game of the year for both teams as there was no real difference in stature or quality between the sides,” Marlet tells FFT. “There was extra tension at that time because at Marseille we had some players that had previously been on PSG’s books. That gave the game an extra something.
“They were incredible affairs. There was so much focus on the matches. I remember we had missiles thrown at our bus on the way to the stadium. It was feisty, to say the least.”
Marlet believes the passion that has historically surrounded Marseille is more of a burden than an advantage for the club, and has played a role in the instability that has plagued them in recent seasons.
“Things at Marseille always take on another dimension. As soon as there is a small problem, it gets exaggerated. Before you know it, it’s a big problem.
"An issue at Marseille does not get handled the same way it might at a small club like Guingamp, for example. There’s so much passion at the club. The fans and the media get carried away by events at times. It can be really destabilising for the players.
“You’ve seen that this season, with the fans turning against the team. For the players, that’s terrible. The club is up for sale at the moment. Clearly the environment at Marseille is a factor that potential buyers will be taking into account.”
Hope for a cupset?
Recent history suggests PSG should run out easy winners in the French Cup final. Laurent Blanc’s side did the domestic cup double (League Cup and French Cup) last season and are on course for a repeat performance after beating Lille 2-1 in the League Cup final last month. The only Marseille players that could possibly hope to win a place in PSG’s star-studded line-up are goalkeeper Steve Mandanda and reborn ex-Chelsea midfielder Lassana Diarra.
Yet Marlet believes Marseille’s displays against PSG in Ligue 1 this season give the underdogs hope. Marseille lost 2-1 at Parc des Princes last October and 2-1 at home in February – but on both occasions played well.
“If Marseille play to the same standard as they did against PSG in the league, then yes, they have a chance. They were arguably the first team to truly trouble PSG this season. They have to go into the game with the same belief and looking to cause PSG problems in exactly the same way.
“But it also depends what PSG team turns up. If they play the same way as they did in some of their better performances this season – against Real Madrid in the Champions League, for example – they should be far too strong for Marseille.
"If, on the other hand, they are already mentally on holiday, it might be different.”
This summer will provide the latest evidence that PSG and l’OM are no longer rivals the way they used to be. While PSG go hunting for one or more superstars – Neymar, Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba are all on the shopping list – to replace the departing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Marseille face the prospect of losing their best players for the second year running.
Last summer it was Dimitri Payet, Andre Ayew and Andre-Pierre Gignac; this time Belgium striker Michy Batshuayi and France no. 2 goalkeeper Mandanda could be waving farewell.
But before all that Marseille have the opportunity to turn back the clock to a time where these two clubs genuinely competed as equals. Thirty thousand fans are expected to travel from the south of France to watch their team at Stade de France.
This weekend will be their moment to rescue their season and remind PSG that, for all their European ambitions, domestic rivalries still matter. For a couple of hours on Saturday night, we will be able to see just how special PSG-OM clashes can be.
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