‘Le Classico’ is a phrase which evokes the greatest amount of passion and emotion among French football fans. It symbolises Ligue 1’s greatest derby, which sees the North of the country face-off against the South, as Paris Saint-Germain take on their deadly rivals, Olympique de Marseille.
Ever since the fixture was first played in 1971, in a match with saw Marseille running out four-two winners, ‘Le Classico’ has been a match that has divided towns and villages the length and breadth of ‘L’Hexagone’, giving the game a truly national dimension and making it the country’s most viewed sporting event. This Sunday’s match in Marseille at the Stade Vélodrome will be no exception.
A crucial fixture in the title race
This season’s Ligue 1 title race has been one of the most keenly fought competitions in European football, with, as it stands, just two points separating third-placed OM with the league leaders and defending champions PSG. Olympique Lyonnais occupy second place and sit one point ahead off Marseille and trail PSG by the same margin.
Hubert Fournier’s will understandably be watching proceedings at the Vélodrome with a very keen eye, after they play Guingamp away late on Saturday afternoon. A slip up in Sunday’s match could have serious implication for both rivals, and conversely a win could serve as the perfect boost for either side ahead of the final title run-in.
With just eight games left after Sunday’s fixture, the importance of Sunday’s final ‘Classico’ of the season cannot be underestimated.
A historically competitive derby
PSG remain unbeaten against Marseille in their last twelve meetings in all competitions, with the last six meetings resulting in victories for Les Parisiens, and this could lead some to think that the outcome of Sunday’s fixture is a foregone conclusion.
However, despite recent capital city dominance, the fixture has a forty-four year history of being one of Europe’s most competitive derbies.
In their 85 clashes so far, PSG have traditionally had a slight edge over their rivals, winning 34 fixtures, including their two-nil at the Parc des Princes earlier in the season in November.
However, Marseille have won 43 matches when the two sides have gone to head to head, meaning a home win on Sunday would see the men from Provence go back level with PSG on historic wins.
Even more incentive for a Marseille victory, if any was ever needed!
Bielsa v Blanc
Ever since his appointment as OM’s head coach at the end of last season, former Argentina and Chile international coach Marcelo Bielsa has been idolised by the club’s fervent supporters.
From his trademark seat on a pitch-side coolbox, Bielsa has orchestrated a change at the club which has seen his side’s style of play evolve in an almost unimaginable way. Despite his claim in a press conference that he was no ‘revolutionary’, Bielsa has revolutionized Marseille’s game with the same high-pressing style of play that won him admirers at Athletic Club Bilbao.
As a result, players such Dimitri Payet and Giannelli Imbula, who in the past despite clear ability failed to reach their potential, have excelled and transformed themselves into match winners. The Bielsa effect has been a hit, with Canal + analysts and former Marseille striker Christope Dugarry declaring that ‘there should be more Bielsa’ in Ligue 1.
Despite rumours about his long-term future, a Marseille win on Sunday would be a memorable highlight in what has been an incredible first season in France for the 59-year-old coach.
Despite guiding his side to a Ligue 1 and Coupe de la Ligue double last season, as well as leading his side to the UEFA Champions league quarter-final, Laurent Blanc’s position as Paris Saint-Germain head coach has never appeared to be the most comfortable of management roles in terms of his turbulent job security.
Working for France’s richest club clearly has benefits in terms of the budget he has been afford, which has allowed him to splash the cash on players such as Yohan Cabaye and David Luiz, however he has also had to allow himself to become accountable to the club’s demanding Qatari president, Nasser Al-Khelaïfi.
Following an inconsistent start to the Ligue 1 season, which saw PSG suffer a defeat the hands of Guingamp, and Lyon and Marseille at times surging ahead in terms of points, pressure mounted upon the former French World Cup winner, and speculation about a separation between Blanc and his current employers increased.
However Blanc’s side have bounced back, and after a perhaps overly talked about fall-out between the head coach and the South American duo of Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, PSG are now once again firm favourites as league leaders in the title race.
Les Parisiens are one of a select few of European giants who remain in all four competitions open to them, with a Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona, a Coupe de France semi-final against AJ Auxerre and a Coupe de la Ligue final against SC Bastia still lying in wait.
An an away on enemy territory on Sunday would be a perfect way for the PSG coach to show the footballing world that his side mean business ahead of their frantic and packed end to the season.
Le Printemps Marseillais v Paris’ experience
After a dismal winless February which saw them record unimpressive draws against Reims and Rennes, as well as suffering a shock home defeat against Caen, Marseille’s return to form in March was dubbed as Le Printemps Marseillais (The Marseille Spring) by some of the more poetic sections of the French media.
In their three March fixtures, Marseille record impressive six-one and four-nil results against Toulouse and RC Lens respectively, as well as drawing nil-all with the then league leaders Lyon. The physically impressive Michy Batshuayi starred in both of the victories, increasing his goal tally to six goals in his last five for Bielsa’s side, and he continued his good form by marking his international debut with a goal for Belgium last weekend against Cyprus.
The 21-year old isn’t expected to start of André-Pierre Gignac on Sunday evening, but he is one of a number of promising young Marseille players, including expected starters Mario Lemina, Benjamin Mendy and Florian Thauvin, who could have a significant impact on the game’s outcome. It’s worth noting that left-back Mendy will be keen to make up for the crucial mistake he made when the two sides met at the Parc des Princes, leading to a PSG goal.
Marseille will be up against a side that has been there and done it with class before, and it’s this experience that could be the key for Paris Saint-Germain in terms of winning an invaluable three points in Sunday’s fixture.
It’s also worth remembering the psychological importance of PSG’s recent win against Chelsea, which saw Blanc’s progress thanks to an impressive performance, despite the adversity of the situation they found themselves in.
The likely high-paced nature of Sunday’s fixture will provide Marco Verratti with an opportunity to show the world just how good he is at breaking opposition teams down, and it’s likely to be the type of game in which the talented 22-year-old playmaker’s deep-lying role could make the difference between the two teams.
New Vélodrome, new era?
Aside from impressing on the park, les Marseillais have also impressed French football this season with their completely redeveloped and improved stadium. Sunday’s match will be the biggest spectacle to have taken place at the ground since the developments were finished, and the new-look stadium should give the game a different feel from when the side’s last met there in October 2013.
The capacity has been increased, with OM’s recent clash against Lyon seeing a record crowd of around 63,000 attend, and by the sounds of it, so have the noise levels. Bielsa and his players will be hoping that an extremely passionate Phocean crowd will be able to give them the edge against the toughest opponents that they will face this season.