Marseille’s fantasy movers closer to reality

By Howard Johnson in Paris
We’ve talked about it all season long, but with just six games to go in France’s Ligue 1 the fantasy could become reality. Can Olympique Marseille – France’s most revered, best supported and potentially most financially muscular club – finally do what nobody has achieved since way back in 2002?

Can Eric Gerets’ side topple Claude Puel’s Lyon from their perch as League Champions and put a stop to ‘Les Gones’ ambitions of securing an eighth consecutive title?

It’s Marseille who find themselves in the box seat right now. To see any other club besides Lyon at the top of the table at this late stage of the season is already enough to have most French football fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief. But there is now genuine faith down on the south coast that l’OM can push on, force themselves over the finishing in first place and rain on Lyon’s parade.

How is it that Marseille, so often the Great White Hopes at the start of a league campaign before blowing it royally, have finally managed to turn themselves into genuine contenders? Everyone in France is in agreement that it’s mainly down to coach Eric Gerets, the Belgian with a face like thunder.

When former PSV Eindhoven defender and European Cup-winner Gerets arrived on the south coast of France to replace Albert Emon back in September of 2007 Marseille were in dire straits. Wallowing down at the bottom of the table and surrounded by tales of indiscipline and a couldn’t-care-less attitude among the players, the club was in danger of imploding as it had often done in the past.

Gerets arrived, looking and sounding like he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense, and hauled the team up by its collective bootstraps to help them finish in a more-than-respectable third place with the handy bonus of Champions League qualification.

Hopes were naturally high for the new season. New signings Bakari Kone and Hatem Ben Arfa, offensive-minded players brought in from Nice and Lyon respectively, had whetted the supporters’ appetites, while former Lens defender, the Brazilian Hilton, looked like adding a certain amount of steel to a traditionally porous defence.

But as French football shut down for the traditional winter break all was not well in the Marseille camp. A 3-0 home defeat to Nancy saw Gerets’ team slip to fifth place in the league, with the manager visibly angry at a group that seemed to have plenty of talent, but not enough heart.

Owner Jean-Louis Dreyfus then put pressure on Gerets by saying that a top two finish and at least one piece of silverware was a minimum requirement for season 2008-09. Gerets was not best pleased with such a public warning, but no doubt Dreyfus will now say his outburst did the trick. Since the start of 2009 Marseille have found heart, soul and rhythm and are suddenly two points ahead of Lyon with just 18 more points up for grabs.

So what’s changed in the second half of the campaign? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out. The arrival of the giant Brazilian Brandao from Shakhtar Donetsk in early January for a fee of six million euros is starting to seem like the deal of the season. Nobody had heard of the 28-year-old and there were many who doubted his ability to deliver what Marseilles needed.

Nobody doubts Brandao now. His scoring record of five goals in 11 matches isn’t too shabby, but it’s his aggressive style of play and ability to bring a real physicality to a side that was far too lightweight that has really caught the eye. It’s no coincidence that Marseille failed to make the UEFA Cup semis with Brandao cup-tied.

Can Gerets’ side really come home ahead of the pack? It’s certainly possible now and if it happens that has to be a good thing for French football. The date circled in everybody’s diary is Sunday May 17, when Marseille welcome Lyon to the Stade Velodrome for what has all the makings of a heavyweight title decider.

Sparks will most definitely fly.