PROFILE | Chancel Mbemba: Marseille’s new Marcel Desailly

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“I thought I was watching Cafu at one point”. High praise indeed for any defender to receive, but particularly from a footballing connoisseur like Thierry Henry. The compliment that came Chancel Mbemba’s way – after Marseille’s match against PSG – gives an indication of the quality that the defender has shown since his arrival on the south coast.

When Marseille brought in the DR Congo international on a free transfer in the summer, it looked like a great piece of business and his performances to date have borne this out. Arriving at the Velodrome with a wealth of experience and success behind him, including spells in England and Portugal, Mbemba has not missed a minute of Ligue 1 action and has established himself as the patron of the OM backline.

Having moved from Kinshasa to Anderlecht at 18, he quickly broke into the first team and became a mainstay of the club’s defence for two seasons, during the first of which he made 35 appearances and weighed in with five goals as he helped the club to a league title. His performances attracted Newcastle and he immediately made a place for himself in the Magpies’ first team, starting 33 matches, albeit in a season which ended with relegation to the Championship. In the following season, which saw Newcastle promoted, he dropped out of the regular first-team line-up and, after only nine appearances in the following season back in the Premier League, he moved on to Porto.

After eventually breaking into the first team in his second season, he went on to have three full, successful campaigns, helping the club to win two straight league and Cup doubles – and scoring a match-winning double in a Cup final against arch-rivals Benfica. However, amid claims and counter-claims over Mbemba’s real age, which have followed him throughout his career, Porto decided not to renew his contract and he moved to the Canebiere.

Despite Henry’s comparison, perhaps a fairer one would be with former Marseille star Marcel Desailly – a charismatic leader, strong in the challenge and in the air but also comfortable with the ball at his feet and weighing in with goals – including two in the Champions League group stage in which OM fell just short. The PSG match which drew Henry’s compliment, although ending in defeat, was a showcase of Mbemba’s talents, shackling Kylian Mbappé all match yet also finding the time to push forward and to have some of Marseille’s best chances.

Marseille are often looking for star names to restore them to past glories but, if they end the season successfully, it will be in large part thanks to the chance they took on Chancel.

Jeremy Smith | GFFN

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