Marseille: The Europa League’s dark horses should be taken seriously
Paired with a semifinal fixture against FC Red Bull Salzburg, the Olympians could prove everyone wrong this year
With a 51st position ranking in UEFA’s coefficients, Marseille are easily the lowest ranked team to make the semi-finals.
Currently 4th in their domestic league and widely regarded as unfancied outsiders, they have proven to be far greater than the sum of their parts.
The winners of the Arsenal vs Atlético Madrid match will remain clear favourites to win the tournament this season but this no way guarantees victory.
With European football falling in favour of the more adventurous, attack-minded sides this week, Marseille’s approach will hold them in good stead.
The Olympians concluded a week of stunning European comebacks to progress to the semi-finals and should now be considered with a great chance of adding to their 1993 Champions League success.
A night to remember
Heading into last night’s second leg tie with a 1-0 deficit to RB Leipzig, it was widely thought the German side would progress.
Despite a closely matched first leg, the German’s were unbeaten in seven games – including a win over Bayern Munich – and had an in-form Timo Werner leading their line.
A goal for the visitors doubled their advantage with only 64 seconds on the clock to reinforce this belief. However, Marseille had other ideas.
Two goals within the next seven minutes were the perfect reply from the French side to put them back in control before Florian Thauvin struck to send them into halftime with an aggregate lead.
The second-half proved even more eventful with Jean-Kévin Augustin scoring for Leipzig to edge them ahead on away goals before Dimitri Payet’s wonder-strike 5 minutes later put Marseille back in front. A final goal from Hiroki Sakai sealed a highly deserved victory in what became an attacking shootout against a Champions League quality side.
A proven manager
Under the direction of Rudi Garcia, Marseille have a manager with a strong belief in attacking football. More than this, he’s also a manager who has proven he can lift players and teams to achieve beyond expectations.
Gracia led Lille to a domestic double in the 2010-11 season where he encouraged the talents of Eden Hazard and Michel Bastos to come to the fore in French football.
He then followed this by moving to Serie A where he guided Roma to back-to-back second-place finishes in the Italian league.
A difficult start to his third campaign saw him depart by mutual consent and return to Marseille where he has revived the career of Thauvin, who was a player desperately lacking in confidence.
With Payet back in the commanding form that West Ham fans will remember all too well and Thauvin playing magnificently. It can be easy to overlook Marseille’s other players.
In 18-year-old defender Boubacar Kamara they have one of Europe’s rising stars who is showing great maturity during his debut season.
The real gem in their crown is Maxime Lopez, a 20-year-old who Gracia is shaping into his own image.
An attacking midfielder who has only played a bit-part for the French club this season, it may be too early to expect miracles from either of these players. However, they both made a significant impact in the win over Leipzig.
A fifth-placed finish in Ligue 1 last season meant Marseille were faced with two opponents in the qualifying stages of this year’s tournament.
This was followed by coming second to FC Red Bull Salzburg in the group stages where they took an equal return of wins, losses and draws from their 6 matches.
Subsequent wins in the knockout stages over S.C. Braga, Athletic Bilbao and now RB Leipzig means the Olympians have already played 16 matches in this competition, far more than the other teams left in the competition.
The Stade Vélodrome has also proven a fortress for Marseille who are unbeaten at home in Europe this season. With 6 of their 7 home matches ending in victory, only Salzburg have escaped with a 0-0 draw.
Now faced with a rematch against the Austrian champions, the first leg will be played in France providing an ideal opportunity for them to head into the second leg confident of reaching the final which will be a one-off match to realise their dreams.
A great motivator
With the Europa League final set to take place in Lyon’s Parc Olympique Lyonnais, a mere 200-mile car journey from Marseille, the final could almost feel like a home match for Marseille.
It’s important that they don’t think too far ahead having lost 1-0 on aggregate from their previous meetings with Salzburg this season, especially considering the Austrian side’s impressive win over Lazio last night.
If they can become the first ever French club to reach the Europa League final, they will relish the chance of playing on French soil and will receive vociferous support on the night.
It’s notable that Atlético Madrid are now the only surviving side to have fallen out of the Champions League.
In a season which is slowly but surely rewarding attacking sides and proving that results don’t always favour the favourites, Marseille have every reason to believe they can win.
Can Marseille make the Europa League final? Let us know in the comments section below.