French football

Marseille seek to rub salt into PSG's hyped-up wounds

Neymar and Lionel Messi played for Barcelona against Real Madrid in "El classico". On Sunday, they will play for Paris Saint-Germain against Marseille in a fixture dubbed "le classique".
Neymar and Lionel Messi played for Barcelona against Real Madrid in "El classico". On Sunday, they will play for Paris Saint-Germain against Marseille in a fixture dubbed "le classique". © AFP/Bertrand Guay

So this is the state of the Paris Saint-Germain nation as they prepare to take on eternal rivals Marseille in Sunday night’s blockbuster at the Vélodrome: top of Ligue 1 with a forward line of Neymar and Lionel Messi and leading the way at the mid way point in the group stages of this season’s Champions League.


There should be panegyrics aplenty.

But no, Ici C’est Paris - as the fans love to bawl at the Parc des Princes - and in spite of the twin highs, it’s a slough of despond.


A 3-2 scrape past RB Leipzig on Tuesday night in the Champions League was preceded by a 2-1 nerve-shredder with Angers in the French top flight on 15 October.

Following the win over Angers, PSG boast 27 points after 10 games. They head Champions League Group A with seven points from their three games.


But yet the tactics of the PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino continue to be dissected and dismissed with the verve and vivacity that his team are - according to the pundits - sadly lacking.

"With time I am certain things will work much better and everything will be smoother," said Pochettino after the Leipzig match.

It wasn't supposed to be like this for the former Tottenham Hotspur coach.

The arrival of Messi in August was projected as the sure-fire way to recapture the Ligue 1 title and set up PSG for a serious tilt at the Champions League crown. 

PSG’s owners - QSI - have set their hearts on hoisting the Champions League crown.

And they’ve been close: runners-up in 2020 and semi-finalists in 2021.

Drafting in the six time winner of the Ballon d’Or to dazzle with 222 million euros worth of Brazilian talent in the shape of Neymar and a 180 million euro Kylian Mbappé seemed logical. 


Messi at 34 is no longer the scampering scourge of packed defences. But the Argentine has added heft to the PSG brand and he has been effective. 

He scored the second goal in the 2-0 win over Manchester City on 28 September in the Champions League and bagged a brace on 19 October against Leipzig in the same competition.

His arrival doesn’t bugle failure.

It’s rather the grind around the shine. Pundits point to an unbalanced midfield and the lack of defensive input from Messi and Mbappé.

Neymar, who tracks back more than he's given credit for, was absent on Tuesday night due to a problem with his adductors. But he has been passed fit for the fray on Sunday.

That won't necessarily make Pochettino's life easier.

Neymar played alongside Messi, Mbappé and Angel Di Maria in the Champions League opener in Bruges in early September.

"The Fantastic Four" were hardly a marvel. They and the other less than magnificent seven came away with a 1-1 draw.

Not even a fun boy three of Messi, Neymar and Mbappé has brought convincing victories. But still, winning without dash and flash is better than defeat with élan

Not that Marseille will care a jot about the travails of titans. They entertain the leaders in what has become known as "le classique" scenting blood. 

If Marseille win Sunday night's sold-out clash and beat Nice on 27 October in the game that was abandoned due to crowd trouble in August, they will be four points behind Messi and co.

It’s a tall order for Marseille though. They lost two games in Ligue 1 before thrashing Lorient 4-1 last Saturday.

They’ll face PSG after a 0-0 draw in the Europa League on Thursday night against Lazio in Rome.


That result left Jorge Sampaoli’s outfit third in Group E with three points after three stalemates. Hardly a glittering preparation for the visit of the Ligue 1 leaders.

But the 61-year-old Argentine has been in a bullish mood ahead of the clash.

After unsurprisingly hailing his compatriot as the best player in the world, Sampaoli added: "We have to control the match … that’s the best was to stop Messi.

"We’ve got to make sure that he stays far away from our goal … because if he’s close, he’s got the skills to do the damage."

So far, so gushy. But hola Jorge, this is le classique. You’re not supposed to be bigging up the boys from the capital.

And he duly stuck the boot in.

"To have Messi, Neymar, Mbappé and Di Maria in the same team … only a country can do this by buying up a football club.

"These kinds of players can change the course of a match in a heartbeat. It makes life very tough for the other clubs who don’t have the resources to do this kind of thing."


Who can Marseille offer up to rip open PSG? 

Dimitri Payet appears to be back on song. The veteran schemer set up two of the goals in the romp past Lorient and he scored twice in the 3-2 defeat to Lens in late September.

Marseille midfielder Valentin Rongier identified team ethic as the key to success.

"The PSG squad is one of the best in the world," said the 26-year-old Frenchman.

"But collectively we are strong and we’ll have to compete on those terms.

"PSG don't like to defend and if we have possession, we will make it difficult for them. I'm sure we can do something."

They had better. When Marseille beat PSG in a feisty match at the start of the 2020/21 season, it was their first win over their arch rivals since 2011.

In January 2021, normal service was resumed when Pochettino collected his first piece of silverware as a coach with PSG’s 2-1 triumph over Marseille in the French Super Cup. 

A 2-0 victory followed at the Vélodrome in the league the following month.

Lille eventually pipped PSG to the Ligue 1 title though PSG did pick up the Coupe de France. 


Welcome though that was, it’s not the bauble for which billions have been spent.

Win le classique with style and Pochettino will be able to wave away the vultures. Another victory without panache? The pressure on him will go nuclear because the business model can’t be wrong, can it?

"I don’t think PSG can take the French title for granted," Sampaoli added.

"We’ve all seen things that allow us to think that we can do something."

Sampaoli's telling it like it is. 

And for all their petro-dollars, PSG’s owners don’t have the hush money.

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