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Olympique Marseille: an important season ahead

Olympique Marseille: an important season ahead

Three years ago, the mood in the Stade Vélodrome was upbeat...

Marcelo Bielsa, the highly rated Argentine manager, had joined Marseille and the likes of Dimitri Payet, André-Pierre Gignac and Steve Mandanda were in fantastic form. Marseille started the season scintillatingly, remaining in the top two league positions until February/March when Bielsa’s physically demanding style of football took its toll on the players. They went on to finish fourth after PSG, Lyon and Monaco had stronger finishes to the season.

I was at the final game of the season in 2015: a 3-0 win at home to Bastia. While there was a great performance from the players, the fans were mostly subdued. Not only was their team falling just short of the Champions League qualifying round, but several key players made their final appearances – top scorer André-Pierre Gignac left for Mexico, and André Ayew and Dimitri Payet moved to the Premier League. In total, OM lost seven of their starting 11 players from that day in the summer transfer window. The reason for the exodus was the financial situation at the club – which also meant that the players were leaving at cut price in desperation to offload some of the higher earners. This loss of the first team and of control over transfers led to Bielsa’s departure after just one match day of the 15/16 season. Things did not improve: Míchel came in as manager and was sacked unceremoniously in April with the club languishing in 15th. Following that shipwreck of a season, the only two players to have performed to a half decent standard left for London – Steve Mandanda (impressively winning Ligue 1 goalkeeper of the year despite the club ending in 13th) to Crystal Palace and Michy Batshuayi (scoring 17 goals) to Chelsea. At this point it almost looked like Marseille could be destined for relegation come the end of the following season. But things began to look up in the summer. A few key loan signings were made including Bafétimbi Gomis, William Vainqueur and Florian Thauvin, who had been sold to Newcastle the previous year. In addition, an American sports investor, Frank McCourt, was linked with the Provence club. By October, he had purchased OM and promised change. Immediately, Rudi Garcia, a former Ligue 1 winning manager with Lille, was brought in at the helm. Although the results before Christmas were not spectacular, McCourt lived up to his promise and invested in the first team squad. Morgan Sanson, the promising young French midfielder at Montpellier and Gregory Sertic, a defensive player at Bordeaux, came to the Vélodrome. This pair of signings were followed by two bigger names: the much loved Dimitri Payet made his return to Marseille after a controversial exit from West Ham, and Patrice Evra joined from Juventus on a free transfer. Garcia’s team finished the season well, ending in 5th position and qualifying for the pre-Europa League knockout phase. Two key loan players from last year, Gomis and Vainqueur, elected to move for pastures new and did not extend their stays in the south of France.

However, manager Rudi Garcia has been busy over the summer and turned his attention to two other players on loan last season – Florian Thauvin, whose form last season earned him his first cap, was brought back in from Newcastle and Clinton Njie, from Tottenham Hotspur, made his move permanent. Both players scored against Dijon (with Njie bagging a brace) on the opening matchday last weekend. Valère Germain has also joined from Monaco and had an instant impact, scoring a hat trick on his debut in a Europa League qualifier against KV Oostende and providing two assists in his league debut. Germain was not tipped to be the starting striker when he was signed for a fee of around £10m, but his early season performances have given him a platform to build on. Marseille have also bolstered their defence with the signings of the veterans Adil Rami at centre-back and Luiz Gustavo in defensive midfield. Both are well travelled players with European experience who will have direct impacts in the first team. They also re-signed another player who left for the Premier League: their goalkeeping talisman, Steve Mandanda. The stopper has been elected Ligue 1 Goalkeeper of the Season four times in his career including his last two seasons in Marseille, so he is still in fantastic form at 32-years-old. They already ran a tight ship in defence last season, conceding the fourth least goals in the league, but these signings will go even further to make them tough to score against. One player to really keep an eye on this year will be Maxime López, the 19-year-old who has been with Marseille since 2010. Having broken in to the first team last season, Maxime is now a mainstay in the midfield. The youngster scored three goals and provided seven assists throughout the campaign, earning himself a Ligue 1 Player of the Month trophy in the process. He has fantastic delivery from dead ball positions, regularly getting his assists from free kicks and corners. Now that Lopez has the vastly experienced Luiz Gustavo alongside him to provide the brawn, he will be able to fill the role of the midfield general.

The fans certainly feel a lot more positive about this season. Last year, Marseille’s season ticket sales hit their lowest in twenty years at 17,500. This season they reached 28,500 before the match against Dijon. Supporters can see that the owners are investing in the team and that the manager is crafting a side capable of improving on last year’s fifth placed finish. Marseille are in a much better place than this time last year, that is for sure, but what they need to do is turn draws into wins. They drew eleven matches in the league last year, far too many for a team who have Champions League aspirations.

Unfortunately for the Provence club, PSG have opened their wallet this summer and smashed the world record transfer fee for Neymar. Anything short of winning the league will be a disaster for them and surely spell the end of Unai Emery's spell in the French capital.

Monaco and Lyon may have lost some key players but they have also brought in some very talented young players, Youri Tielemans and Mariano Díaz respectively, for example. Nice acquired the evergreen Wesley Sneijder and will be no pushovers either.

All in all, Marseille have a battle on their hands if they want to return to the Champions League in 2018 given that in France only the top two qualify immediately with the third put into the final qualification round. Nevertheless, with the additions they have made this summer and the belief back with the fans thanks to Rudi Garcia and the new board, their sights should definitely be set on qualifying for Europe’s premier competition.