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Ligue 1 Review – Week 38

Marseille’s longest-tenured player (not including his sojourn to Crystal Palace), Steve Mandanda, started his week off in fine form, by winning his record-breaking fifth UNFP Goalkeeper of the Year award. Some, including the authors of this column, would have rather seen the likes of Stéphane Ruffier or Anthony Lopes take home the award, but it was Mandanda who was honoured last Sunday. Winger Florian Thauvin also capped a fine individual season by being shortlisted for the Player of the Year award, even as he failed to make the Team of the Year. Luiz Gustavo was named in that eleven, and Sunday’s festivities seemed a due reward for a Marseille side who have made immense progress this season, competing on two fronts despite a severely limited squad.

Whatever mood of jubilation that surrounded the club quickly dissipated, however, as Marseille saw a potential place in the Champions’ League slip away twice in the span of four days. Wednesday’s Europa League final, won 3-0 by Atlético Madrid, was an all but inevitable result, with the Spanish side’s resources, resolve and coaching acumen in the form of Diego Simeone all besting those available to l’OM. There was some degree of ignominy in the manner of the defeat, with Valère Germain having snatched at a fine chance in the opening 10 minutes, but the result itself surprised no one, even as events in the match foreshadowed a cavalcade of rotten luck for Rudi Garcia’s side.

Marseille had looked bright in the early stages of the match, but Germain’s miss not only would have surprised few observers of Ligue 1, but also underscored the imperative nature of needing to take one’s chances against their famously parsimonious opponent. Things soon went from bad to worse, however, as Dimitri Payet went off injured after half an hour, suffering a recurrence of a hamstring injury which has hindered him in the recent past and even cast a doubt on his fitness for the final. Payet, whose resilience and good form in the run-in had him tipped to be included in Didier Deschamps’ squad for the World Cup, was understandably in tears as he left the pitch.

Never a player who has been able to draw much sympathy, the former West Ham man was devastated surely for himself, having played in just one major tournament since earning his first call-up in 2010, but also for his side, reflecting as much in his post-match comments. In a post on social media, Payet showed no regrets about his decision to start against Atlético, proudly declaring his resolve to push Marseille further, “Marseille is in my heart and if it is necessary to do it again tomorrow, after tomorrow, in six months, in one year, I would do it without question. I repeat, I love this club and I am ready to make sacrifices for it… I was fully aware of the risks I was taking and I fully assume the consequences.”

While Payet’s attitude is laudable for his determination, especially given his past, one does have to question his motives, as, heading into Saturday’s final fixtures, Marseille still stood a chance of qualifying for the Champions’ League through their league placement, with their rivals, Monaco and Lyon, facing considerably more motivated opposition than themselves in Troyes, battling to avoid relegation, and Nice, who could reach the Europa League places. Deprived of Payet, Marseille still had a strong squad, but given his form of late, one would necessarily query how able they would be to break down their opponents without their captain’s inventiveness.

Amiens, already safe, did indeed make things a bit nervier than the hosts likely would’ve preferred. Marseille, with Morgan Sanson taking Payet’s place as a number ten, quickly went ahead 2-0, but Moussa Konaté did well to pull back a goal on the half hour, with an exhausted Marseille denied on a handful of occasions by the heroics of Amiens goalkeeper Regis Gurtner. Marseille eventually held on for the win, but their effort was for naught as Lyon beat Nice in a thrilling 3-2 encounter at the Parc OL, meaning Marseille’s Champions’ League aspirations were once again dashed.

Heartbreak, then, was the theme of the week, a quick turnaround from the previous Sunday’s honours, but the fact of the matter is Marseille should take heart from a strong season. More depth is surely needed at centre back, as is a top-class striker, but none of their first-choice eleven have been linked away from the club, and under Rudi Garcia, they have showed a new willingness to go toe-to-toe with the best that Ligue 1 have to offer. The results have not always been pretty, with Marseille earning just two points in their six matches against the top three, but this team have shown time and again that under Garcia, they are willing and able to play a direct, attacking style of football, even against their fellow top four contenders.

The Champions’ League would have, and perhaps should have been this side’s reward for that ambition but Marseille, owner Frank McCourt and the team’s fans, rather than focusing on the pain of the previous week, should look at their side as being talented, stable, and ready to move forward in a summer where Monaco and Lyon could once again be picked clean in the transfer window, and even cast an eye towards Paris Saint-Germain should Neymar choose to depart. To wit, it may not have been what was expected, but Marseille are well-positioned, and perhaps even favourites to come second in Ligue 1 next year. Newly fueled by this disappointment, if this side can demonstrate the type of conviction shown in Payet’s words, the future will surely hold far less of the type of anguish seen in the past week, no small matter for a side who continue to rise.

1 | While Ligue 1 has long been a breeding ground for young talent, this season has proved that French football can also aid the development of more established names. Wayward spells in England had seen the stock of Mario Balotelli and Memphis Depay plummet but as the summer approaches, both are turning heads once more. Depay’s stunning hat-trick in a crucial 3-2 win over Nice which secured Champions’ League football for OL, a sly free-kick slipped under the wall and a cute dinked finish were highlights of another evanescent, unplayable Depay display.

His end of season form has marked a gear shift from flashy self-indulgence to a talismanic leader putting the Dutchman on course to becoming the superstar he had once threatened to be. Balotelli, despite missing a potentially pivotal chance to equalise before Depay’s third, has found a home in France and a mooted move to Marseille has the potential to be a defining moment for both club and player. Whatever their futures hold, 19 (Depay) and 18 (Balotelli) league goals are hard to argue with.

2 | Although PSG had secured the title some time ago, they still had a part to play in what was a hectic Ligue 1 final day with Champions’ League and Europa League places, the relegation play-off and automatic relegation all still undecided. The champions’ draw at Caen was enough to ensure that their hosts were out of reach of Toulouse in the relegation play-off spot despite TFC’s 2-1 win over mid-table Guingamp. It was a win that would relegate Troyes in 19th, no matter the outcome of their meeting with Monaco whose 3-0 victory secured second place and Champions League’ football once more.

Nice started the day in 6th, the final Europa League spot, but defeat at OL meant both Bordeaux and St Étienne could usurp Les Aiglons with a win of their own. Bordeaux’s 4-0 routing of bottom side Metz was enough to pip St Étienne to the post, who beat Lille 5-0, on goal difference, and join Rennes and Marseille in the Europa League. The season’s final issue will be decided this week as Toulouse play second division AC Ajaccio over two legs for the last remaining place in next season’s Ligue 1.

E.D. with A.W.

 

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