Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Heroes of the Velodrome racing clear
When asked who he wanted to win the Ligue 1 title this season, Montpellier's multi-colourful president Louis Nicollin replied: "PSG, just to p**s off Marseille!" The multi-millionaire pensioner who sported a mohawk in club colours of blue and orange after Montpellier were surprisingly crowned champions last season might still get his wish, but Marseille look as if they may make him sweat just a bit.
Six games into the season and OM's maximum points haul has left them four points clear of the angry mob and a further two ahead of their most bitter rivals from the capital. Habitually, such a state of affairs would barely have solicited an 'Ooh-la-la!' but given the different worlds - and transfer market places - Ligue 1's two biggest clubs now move in, a club record start for OM would surely be worthy of a 'Sacrebleu' if it were in fact something French people actually said.
For while PSG have not so much dipped into the high-end of the talent pool as stripped off and plunged headfirst into a Champagne-filled fountain of the world's best footballers, chequebook in hand, OM have had to make do with barely getting their feet wet. Joey Barton's loan move to the Stade Velodrome, brought to you by Twitter in conjunction with Nietzsche, was by far the most high-profile, and he cannot play domestically until mid-November with his English FA ban making the short trip over the Channel with him. The other summer arrivals - Lucas Mendes, a versatile Brazilian centre-back; young French forward Florian Raspentino; and Comoros international full-back Kassim Abdallah - had even the most committed OM fan scrambling for Google.
"We're not in the world of the Care Bears," Labrune said in pre-season, using a French expression à la mode, before revealing owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus had dipped into her pocket to ensure the club survived the merciless scrutiny of French football's financial watchdog. "If she hadn't done that, we wouldn't be here talking to you. We have to reduce the scale of things. Our revenue is down. We're going to stop day-dreaming." Now, though, OM fans will be pinching themselves.
The downsized transfer policy is one of the main factors behind their success. Though the arrivals have been minimal, the squad remains largely the same as the one that reached the Champions League quarter-finals last season. Only Cesar Azpilicueta, the Spanish right-back who has joined Chelsea, will be really missed, with the booking-prone Stephane Mbia and Alou Diarra, who returned late for pre-season training without a note from his mum, often more trouble than they were worth. Djimi Traore's contract was not renewed either. No surprise there.
"We knew what we wanted, and above all what we didn't want," sporting director Jose Anigo explained. "We chose a different option with little money, and players who really wanted to do it the hard way but who were ready to accept that and commit themselves 100% to the project. We knew who would drive the team onward and upward. We absolutely had to keep those players." Midfielder Benoit Cheyrou, younger brother of ex-Liverpool man Bruno, is one such element, as is unfussy Burkina Faso international Charles Kabore, a midfielder who has filled in at right-back. Centre-back Nicolas Nkoulou, fawningly courted by a number of glamorous clubs in the summer, has also stayed put, forming a partnership with Rod Fanni that has helped restrict opponents to a single league goal this season.
It is Andre-Pierre Gignac, however, who best sums up just how Marseille have been transformed. Bought for an estimated €18 million in 2010 when then-coach Didier Deschamps wanted Alberto Gilardino, Gignac scored nine times in 51 league appearances under the now French national team boss. His 'refuelling issues' had become so apparent that 'A Big Mac for Gignac' became a mightily popular refrain among opposing fans. However, it seems Gignac's taste for football has been rediscovered just as he has lost his hankering for fast food. Three league strikes this season are already two more than he got in the whole of the last campaign, while his all-round contribution has been excellent. "It's night and day," the former Lorient and Toulouse man said when asked to compare the 'then' and 'now' versions of Gignac. "If I'm not solid mentally and physically now, I'll never be. I love this club too much to walk away from it."
Instead, that is what Deschamps did. "I get the impression Didier didn't leave OM," outspoken former Marseille coach Rolland Courbis said recently. "He escaped from it." Irreconcilable differences with Anigo, who was made to leave his office at the club's training ground at Deschamps' behest, made it a marriage doomed to failure. While 'Dede' was winning trophies, Anigo - not so much a part of the furniture as a family heirloom at the Stade Velodrome - was not in a position of strength, but a 13-game winless run last season, culminating in a modest tenth-placed finish, meant Deschamps' time was up.
Given the way things have gone since, you can only conclude Deschamps' departure was also something the squad, desperately forlorn in the latter half of last season, had hoped for. It is hard to imagine the latter versions of Deschamps' OM showing the sort of spirit required to come back from 2-0 down to draw at Fenerbahce as Marseille did in the Europa League last week. "You only need to look at the joy on the face of everyone after the goal. We're jumping all over each other," Gignac gushed after Morgan Amalfitano's headed winner against Evian last weekend. "It wouldn't have taken much for us to kiss each other on the lips."
The man who has fostered such brotherly love is Elie Baup. After taking Bordeaux to the Ligue 1 title in 1999, Baup is best known for failing miserably at Saint-Etienne, Nantes and lastly Toulouse, wearing a cap in the dug-out, and being a friend of Fabien Barthez. When Anigo said he knew what he did not want, Baup's name must have been on the list. Anigo had targeted Rennes' firebrand rent-a-quote coach Frederic Antonetti, Monchengladbach's Lucien Favre and even the untested Fabrizio Ravanelli, learning the tricks of the coaching trade at Juventus' youth academy. After three years out of the game, Baup himself admitted he knew he was not first choice for the job, and while his best asset may well be that he is not Deschamps and seemingly gets on well with Anigo, his appointment has worked well so far.
Not that OM's notoriously inflammable fans should get too carried away. The fixture list has been kind, with only Nicollin's Montpellier and Rennes, both currently out of form, providing imposing adversaries by reputation. Valenciennes, the club that led to Bernard Tapie's downfall and the then-European champions playing in Ligue 2, are up next before PSG, Zlatan Ibrahimovic et al arrive at the Stade Velodrome. If Baup's men make it eight wins from eight that night, Nicollin will be the one feeling more than a little peeved.