Sad Vélodrome

OM fans were fantastic. At least, at the beginning…

It may take 17 great wins to challenge for the title in France, but one failure near the end can be enough to ruin your chances. After one defeat, one draw to Lyon and one loss to PSG earlier this season, OM has just managed to lose yet another game to their direct rivals for L’Hexagoal trophy. As the dust of Sunday night settles, Paris Saint-Germain remain five points clear ahead of Les Phocéens – and it’s a painful margin for yesterday’s losers. The remaining seven weeks worth of domestic games will be nothing but a correspondence race between them and two other, immensely powerful contestants, out of which the club from Stade Vélodrome easily looks least likely to come out on top. After all, two dangerous teams of Bordeaux and Lille are still waiting for OM’s visit on their grounds, where many other decent contestants were forced to bleed points this season. In the meantime, the opposition’s biggest concern is more Champions League football coming to Paris. Yes, Les Olympiens most likely bottled it. The stage was set, the referee did nothing to help the richer side, the fans provided a beautiful decoration and atmosphere, the players knew what they had to do and they even grabbed the lead twice, leaving the pitch for a break with 2-1 in hand – and they still bottled it in the end.

However, the man least to blame is Marcelo Bielsa. El Loco was the one to make the game  insanely interesting, fielding his 3-1-3-3 system once again, even despite PSG’s dangerous amounts of quality upfront. There was no good answer to what might happened if players like Ibrahimović, Cavani and Pastore were left out there playing one-on-one game with three defenders for full 90 minutes – yet the Argentinian mastermind accepted such risk. Thanks to this decision, we had a chance to see the same daring team which crushed Toulouse 6-1 and Lens 4-0 in front of their own fans; a team with the idea of hammering opposition from the word go by scoring multiple goals early on. They saw PSG were intimidated enough to play the opening pass without referee’s permission – and they seized a chance to push them to the limits immediately. The very first run of Dimitri Payet already posed problems; Thiago Silva’s awkward sliding tackle soon after plus the subsequent Ibarhimović’s run that got stopped in a seemingly unstoppable position confirmed that the visitors were not feeling too confident. Gianni Imbula’s absence was hardly a problem for OM, as the team kept tackling their rivals very high up anyway, shutting down oppositons’ movements before they reached zones weakened by Imbula’s absence.

Regardless of that, 12th minute was the time when a red flag appeared. After one key pass that failed, Verratti The Creator swept the ball again and sent through Javier Pastore, who had enough space and time in the middle to fire a dangerous shot. Risk-taker Bielsa was lucky this time – the ball went narrowly wide. This shot, however, signalled PSG’s awakening; they soon managed to win a corner that led to a massive mess in home side’s penalty area, as David Luiz’s presence in the box got almost unnoticed by OM defenders. One moment of terror was followed by another when Cavani received a great over-the-top ball from Pastore. The Uruguayan, arriving at narrow angle, then took what was likely the most awkward shot attempt of the season, simply making a pass to Mandanda. After all these little calamities, Bielsa quickly passed new instructions to his players and they immediately started to shut down those dangers better. Mendy, Ayew and Payet made a great effort to wreck PSG’s smooth passing game, losing the ball almost as much as they won it, but it was ultimately worth it: the home side felt much more comfortable with a messy game full of mistakes, aggression and little fouls here or there. At that moment, neither Laurent Blanc nor his players had the power to turn such disruptive flow around.

As I said, 3-1-3-3 approach is risky – but when executed properly, it has it’s advantages too. Therefore Bielsa, the missionary of attacking, tactical football, will probably keep preaching his teachings. OM’s religion these days is called Wingplay. El Loco wants both sides of the pitch doubled with extra width for creating the advantage of numbers and either dribble past full-backs or cross the ball comfortably on Gignac’s head. Half an hour into the game, Marseille team tested the latter solution. Djédjé and Thauvin failed their attempts, but Payet was more accurate. His curling delivery towards the far post reached Gignac’s head and the rest was histery – histery of sixty-five thousands die-hard fans who gathered at Velodrome to watch exactly what just happened. Marquinhos, who’s been a rock-solid player against Chelsea, stood no chance on this occasion, even despite getting to mark his player from a correct direction. To make PSG’s bad news worse, just few seconds after his misfortune, his fellow compatriot David Luiz chased the ball so recklessly, he injured left hamstring for the second time this year. Blanc, more concerned about proper refereeing than about the injuries prior to this game, responded with a criticism towards season’s schedule: “Most of my players came back to club on Friday. It would’ve been safer for them if they had to play in Marseille before the international break.” True…

…yet, one of the players out there constantly escapes the standard logic of fitness and fatigue. Books were written about Lionel Messi’s titanium-like bones / cartilages / tendons / ligaments that do not fail despite it’s excessive exploitation – but apparently, he’s not the only one who can survive this much of a punishment. Blaise Matuidi might not have the dribbling, agility or pace of his Barcelona colleague, but considering the distance he’s covered this season, he belongs in the same league as Leo. Player with number 14 on his shirt currently remains 7th most persistent runner of Champions League with 90.7 km in 8 appearances and he has easily outran every single other player last night. His actions are equally impressive: apart from a wonderful, right-footed equalizer in the top corner of Mandanda’s goal, he registered 6 successful tackles, 4 good take-ons, 2 clearances, 1 shot on target and 83% pass accuracy – very good for a player whose job is usually to bring the loose balls away from the most hazardous areas. “He worked hard this week to try and score a goal because we were winding him up a bit,” – revealed Blanc after the game: “He hasn’t had much success in front of goal.”, he added, regarding his players’ dry spell this season (only 3 goals and 3 assists in 36 appearances). “He was amazing with his physical game.” stated the final praise from a PSG boss.

Matuidi: another heroic performance, as Chelsea and MU keep an eye on him…

Before all this hard work could be rewarded with a victory, the visitors somehow managed to hit yet another bump. This one should’ve been avoided at all cost – first half was coming to an end and finding themselves on a receiving end of another howler at this part of the match usually ruins teams’ morale. In a strange set of circumstances, PSG fell victim to a bad positioning. It went wrong when Verratti dropped back into Marquinhos’ defensive zone to complete the task that normally belongs to David Luiz – the task of bringing the ball into play from his own half. The Italian needed to just make a pass to Maxwell or play a long ball forward, not taking any risks. Instead of that, he spotted Pastore, needlessly returning to his own half too. If this was any other team, the Argentinian wouldn’t have any opponent around him. But this time, OM’s defensive midfielder playing as a right-back – Alaixys Romao – followed Pastore closely and has made a superb sliding challenge, dispossessing the rival and sending his teammate through at the same time. Once this damage was done, both Thiago Silva and Salvatore Sirigu did their best to fix the leak, but it was too late. Gignac scored one of the easiest goals of his career, went sidelines to celebrate with fans and players in dark shirts smartened up, stopping the remaining attacking moves by OM in the first half with fouls – not a bad idea with just 100 seconds on the clock.

If only all football matches lasted 45 minutes! But, no, players have to deal with a sudden break in their efforts; the break that sometimes turns everything upside-down. Just like Barcelona against Real Madrid several days ago, PSG used this time to compose themselves. In view of that, it’s actually an irony that the second equalizer was a result of a blatant lack of focus from one of their players. Zlatan Ibrahimović stepped up to take a free kick, tried to curl the ball towards the far post with a shot, but slipped horribly and played a pass into the box instead. Fortunately for the visitors, it was collected by Marquinhos, who smashed it into the top corner from a close range. This was a bit of random luck – but what followed soon was luck so enormous, it might not fit on Andre Ayew’s forehead. Pastore’s poor cross went through Djédjé’s leg, changed direction the way PSG needed, went to Jérémy Morel who, under pressure from Ibra, cleared it so badly that he managed to score against his own keeper. That wasn’t the end of visitors’ good fortune: a shot by Gignac hit Marquinhos’ hand, giving the referee good chance to reward OM with a penalty. However, Monsieur Ruddy Buquet dismissed such call as well as the protests. Who would’ve thought that Laurent Blanc complained about refs disliking his team?

With roughly 30 minutes to at least reclaim a draw, Marseille desperately needed something more to happen. Knowing this, Bielsa made a logical decision: he subbed off Thauvin, who’s been easily his least useful player in the final third. Sadly for him, Lucas Ocampos, the man whom he chose to bring, turned out to be a mediocre replacement, contributing only two shots, which both went horribly wide. At that point, the game already needed Michy Batshuayi – Belgian super-sub, responsible for six OM goals since February. Bielsa gave his joker 19 minutes; too little, too late, considering that his team’s fitness got rather depleted by the time Michy got into the fray. Around 70th minute, when Batshuayi got his chance, both squads already looked jaded with constant struggle, passing in a sloppy fashion and wasting multiple, inaccurate crosses – not a good situation to fit another striker in, especially since PSG somehow managed to create more and more danger in front of Mandanda’s goal. But there was no other choice:  Les Phocéens had to either score or perish. The result? Two more bad shots from Lemina and Payet as well as one – literally, one – dangerous cross by Mendy. Not nearly enough – not according to Steve Mandanda, who was the busiest OM player late into the game, saving one PSG’s attempt after another.

What started as delight ended with a disgrace. Edinson Cavani will be happy to hear that his visible, vocal argument with Laurent Blanc regarding the substitution shall be forgotten in view of few more serious offences. Outplayed and frustrated, Marseille players eventually started to behave just like their angered fans. Soon after Ezequiel Lavezzi was treated with paper bags, golf balls and lazer beams to his face, André Ayew, unable to do anything with the result anymore, kicked the ball away right after the final whistle and received his second booking. It did not end there: André-Pierre Gignac, who’s been urging his teammates to go for an all-out attack from sidelines, insulted the referee right after the game and was sent off too. With injured Thiago Motta also added to the kill count, it turns out that the first Le Classique in 2015 costed both teams dearly. Especially since the list of casualties can be further extended in three days. How? Ibrahimović and Payet are set to face the disciplinary committee, regarding the Swede’s criticism of France as a “shitty country” and the Frenchman’s insults towards the referee of OM vs OL game. The journalists are right: there’s really is no other country in Europe now, where title race would spark so many controversies…

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