Marseille targets French title as leader PSG pays visit

Lionel Messi of PSG, Alexis Sanchez of Marseille (left) during the French Cup football match between Olympique de Marseille (OM) and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at Velodrome stadium on February 8, 2023 in Marseille, France.

Marseille has a genuine chance at winning the French title for the first time since 2010, especially if it beats league leader Paris Saint-Germain at home on Sunday.

Victory at a packed and vociferous Stade Velodrome stadium against bitter rival PSG would bring second-place Marseille to within two points of the defending champion.

“The title? Of course we’re thinking about it,” Marseille defender Chancel Mbemba said after the team’s victory over Toulouse on Sunday.

Marseille’s tally of 52 points is its best top-flight tally after 24 games. Confidence is growing in coach Igor Tudor’s cohesive-looking team, which is facing a bedraggled PSG at just the right time.

PSG has lost five of its past 12 games in all competitions. They share a record-equaling 10 French titles. But Marseille is the only French club to win the Champions League — in 1993 — and fans love using the expression “Forever the first” to needle PSG.

“The club is starting to win back its place in the heart of the French (fans),” former Marseille striker Mamadou Niang, who scored 95 goals in six seasons for the club, told the league website.

“People enjoy watching this team play.”
Marseille has lost just once in the past 14 games, while PSG narrowly avoided a fourth straight defeat last weekend when it trailed Lille at home before winning 4-3.

A late equalizer from Kylian Mbappe — visibly exasperated by his team’s poor defending after Lille’s third goal — and a stoppage-time free kick from Lionel Messi may have saved coach Christophe Galtier’s job.

PSG has lost more games already this year under Galtier than all of last year. Galtier took charge in July after Mauricio Pochettino was fired, becoming PSG’s seventh coach in 11 years.

A dismal 2023 has seen defeats at Lens, Rennes and Monaco in the league, while a 1-0 home defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League in the first leg of their round-of-16 game leaves PSG at risk of a second straight exit at this stage of the European tournament.

“You shouldn’t be scared of playing this PSG side,” Niang said. “Monaco showed that.” Tensions are evident among PSG’s squad.

Marquinhos and Neymar argued with sporting director Luis Campos after the Monaco match, and an irate Campos rushed down from the stands during the Lille match.

Even though Campos previously worked with Galtier at Lille, their relationship is reportedly under strain. In all five defeats, PSG’s midfield and defense were overwhelmed when opponents upped the tempo with a strong pressing game — which happens to be Marseille’s strength.

PSG faces Marseille without the injured Neymar, who is sidelined with the latest of many ankle injuries. It will be the 53rd game Neymar has missed with an ankle-related injury since joining in 2017 for a world record 222 million euros ($236 million).

Plagued by injuries and off-field questions — the mayor of the Paris suburb where Neymar lives recently complained about loud music and parties — Neymar has played only 112 of a possible 214 league games since joining PSG from Barcelona.

After the Bayern defeat, Mbappe appeared to allude to Neymar when he said all the players had to “eat well, sleep well” before the second leg. The following night, Neymar took part in a poker tournament and was spotted eating in a fast-food outlet in the early hours.

“I spoke with Neymar and I told him what I thought. He has the right to play poker on his day off, he loves it, Galtier said.
”I told him what I thought of the photo which came out, though. That is absolutely clear.” 

Neymar’s fitness was not an issue at Barcelona. The injury-hit Brazil forward hardly missed a game in his previous three seasons before joining PSG.

Prior to his injury against Lille last Sunday, Neymar had been anonymous in several games — notably against Monaco, Bayern and during a 2-1 French Cup defeat at Marseille two weeks ago. 

Galtier, who is from Marseille and played for the club as a gritty defender, caused confusion when he clenched his fist after Ruslan Malinovskyi scored Marseille’s second goal in that game. 

Some fans saw it as Galtier celebrating but he explained it was a gesture of frustration.
Galtier has to get his tactics right this time.

Marseille harried PSG two weeks ago, cutting the supply line from the back, but also faced less of a counter-attacking threat because the World Cup star Mbappé was out injured.

The France striker showed his devastating speed and finishing with two goals against Lille in his first start after a thigh injury. Tudor knows it’s a risk playing so high up against PSG, but it’s the style of play that has suited Marseille so far.

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