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While gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests interrupted much of the Ligue 1 programme in December, things are now slightly less chaotic in France, with the Coupe de France staging its round-of-64 over the weekend. The competition, which whittles down thousands of sides before including the top-flight teams at this stage, has always produced fairytale runs, with Lyon holding off third-tier Quevilly in the 2012 final and PSG beating Les Herbiers in last season’s showpiece.
Yet, on the wrong side of a result this weekend were Marseille, who lost to ASF Andrézieux, a fourth-division side from a suburb of Saint-Étienne. Andrezieux’s 5,000-capacity ground was deemed too small to host the match, so it was moved to the nearby Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. Whereas some sides rotated their line-ups or lost in dramatic circumstances – both Angers and Montpellier lost 1-0 to lower league opposition – Marseille not only played a first-choice team but also failed to score in a 2-0 defeat.
L’Équipe led with the headline “the lesson,” but Marseille fans must feel as if no lesson has been learned. With no win in seven matches, their struggles are impossible to ignore, even in the face of those of their neighbours, Monaco. The two clubs meet in Ligue 1 on Sunday. Despite Monaco’s struggles this season, Marseille are hardly big favourites.
The arrivals of Cesc Fàbregas and Naldo, a 36-year-old centre-back from Brazil, are not exactly inspirational, but at least Monaco are taking a proactive approach to dealing with their current predicament. Much like Marseille, Monaco spent in the summer, with an emphasis on younger players with no experience in French football. Some of their signings have been a mixed bag (Benjamin Henrichs), but others, most notably Aleksandr Golovin, have been unmitigated disasters.
Marseille face a similar situation, with the signings of Duje Caleta-Car and Nemanja Radonjic at a combined cost of more than €30m having hamstrung the club financially, for no return. Now, as Monaco try to turn around their fortunes in the transfer market, Marseille, having spent heavily in the summer without any significant outgoing sales save André-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s £30m move to Fulham, must try to regain their verve with no mooted help from outside. Or, almost no outside help; a move for Mario Balotelli, who had been a target in the summer, has been rumoured, but with the Italian yet to score this season and unlikely to feature for Nice any time soon after his bust-up with manager Patrick Vieira, his potential arrival hardly seems a palliative.
Marseille could cash in on some of their prized assets in an attempt to restructure the team; Morgan Sanson’s guile and versatility has tempted several bigger sides but the €20m or so they would make from selling him would scarcely make a dent for a team that increasingly looks shorn of depth and quality. This, coupled with their crippling over-reliance on Florian Thauvin, has made Marseille the apotheosis of what can go wrong when a club with a proud tradition seeks to restore their reputation on the fly, opting for ageing or inconsistent players.
The club has enjoyed positives under the ownership of Frank McCourt – their appearance in the Europa League final last season and the renaissance of Thauvin – but this is a squad whose best days seem behind them, with Dimitri Payet, Adil Rami and Steve Mandanda all playing far below their best this season. Rudi Garcia, a manager who earned an impressive reputation in France after his achievements with Lille, has also looked out of his depth, chopping and changing players and systems at will.
Given that McCourt cannot compete financially with PSG, Marseille simply must take an holistic approach to squad building. The Ligue 1 table serves as evidence of this: Lyon have relied on their academy and canny acquisition of young French players; Lille have placed their faith in a young, exciting side; and Montpellier have opted to base their side around the brilliant counter-attacking brio of Michel Der Zakarian.
Marseille, meanwhile, installed a manager whose best success came when he picked young sides who played in an attack-minded style, but then brought in the likes of Kevin Strootman and Dimitri Payet instead. Garcia should absorb some of the blame – as we have argued in this column before – but sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and president Jacques-Henri Eyraud are the ones who need to learn their own lesson.
• “Christmas in January,” read L’Équipe’s front page as major cup upsets punctuated the weekend. Beyond the third-tier National, France’s sprawling lower divisions are split into groups or regions meaning around 500 clubs separated Saint-Étienne and seventh-tier Olympique Strasbourg on Sunday afternoon, making the 6-0 result rather respectable. However, Marseille were not alone in humiliation. Despite fielding a strong team, Angers were beaten 1-0 by sixth-tier side Viry-Châtillon; National outfit SSG Entente embarrassed Montpellier by the same scoreline; Gazelec Ajaccio of Ligue 2 also excited to sixth-division opposition; and Nimes were routed 3-0 by third-tier Lyon Duchère. After National side Les Herbiers made the final last year, cup magic remains rife in France.
• The FA Cup is the world’s oldest cup competition but the Coupe de France is the biggest. Just 64 of several thousand entrants from across France and its former colonies remained this weekend and among them were Aiglon du Lamentin of Martinique. Despite a near 7,000km journey for the Caribbean islanders, Ligue 2 Orléans needed extra time to overcome their visitors, 3-2. Their encounter mirrored Réunion representative Excelsior’s visit to Lille at the same stage two years ago. Having also battled through various qualifying rounds they too held their own before being overrun in injury time, 4-1.
• While Adrien Rabiot’s supposed move to Barcelona will dominate the headlines, another Frenchman may exchange Ligue 1 for the Camp Nou this month. Just 18 and without a senior minute of action to his name, Jean-Clair Todibo seemed a long way from the Toulouse first team this summer but his opportunity emerged when Issa Diop left for West Ham and Stephane Mbia picked up an injury. The rangy centre-back has only made 10 appearances but his ability to play his way out of trouble, pick a pass and read the game quickly and intelligently has drawn significant interest. With his youth contract expiring in June, Todibo refused Toulouse’s longer term professional contract to facilitate a transfer, a decision that, mirroring Rabiot, left him banished from the first team by an understandably frustrated club. Both players are supremely talented but Ernesto Valverde may have to improve their attitudes if they are to succeed at Barcelona.
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