Marseille have momentum as Dimtri Payet & Co. face defining spell of season
Even in Marseille, where football is everything, they had never seen anything like this before. The enthusiasm for the Europa League semifinal on Thursday against RB Salzburg is such that the ticket sales went through the roof.
All tickets (between €25 and €60) were sold in a matter of hours. The demand was so high the club's website crashed for a few hours at the weekend. Marseille say they could have filled the Stade Velodrome three times over.
In the end, the record attendance set in the RB Leipzig game last week with 61, 882 spectators should be beaten again on Thursday. The black market is already in full flow as well, with prices reaching €500 for a single ticket.
It has been 14 years since Marseille's last appearance in a European semifinal, against Newcastle in the UEFA Cup with Didier Drogba at his best before his move to Chelsea. They went through in style with a 2-0 home win but were beaten in the final by Rafael Benitez's Valencia.
Marseille have always had a special relationship with Europe, runners up in the European Cup after losing on penalties to Red Star Belgrade in 1991 before winning the competition, then re-branded as the Champions League, in 1993 after a 1-0 win over AC Milan. And there's two further appearances in the final of this competition, then called the UEFA Cup, which ended in defeats to Parma in 1999 and Valencia in 2004.
Their Europa League campaign started all the way back in July, a third round qualifier against Ostende in Belgium. It could end in Lyon on May 16 in the final.
They have a great chance to get there but are wary of the Austrian club. They faced Salzburg in the group stages this season and are yet to score against them with a 1-0 loss away and a goalless draw at home. It feels like a different Marseille now but this intriguing Salzburg team are capable of great things.
However, the biggest victory for Rudi Garcia and his players is surely how well they are battling on two fronts this season, domestically and in Europe. Managers keep saying how hard it is to play Thursday -- Sunday when you are in this competition and so far Marseille have managed to stay competitive in both.
In the league, they are level on points with Lyon in third but just a point behind Monaco in second. The race for the runners-up spot behind Paris Saint-Germain, which looked over a couple of weeks ago, is now wide open again. Lyon are in great form, like Marseille, but without Europe in mind while Monaco are completely imploding. Last season's champions have lost their last two league matches and won just one of their last five in all competitions. With four games to go, second place is up for grabs and Marseille are still in for a magnificent end of the season.
Of course, it could still all turn sour as they can be knocked out in the semis next week and also finish fourth in the league. However, they have given themselves a great chance in both competitions and they deserve a lot of credit for it. Without the deepest of squads and a bit of tinkering needed from Garcia at times, Dimitri Payet & Co. have more than lived up to expectations. They were exceptional against RB Leipzig in the quarterfinal second leg at the Velodrome, winning 5-2 after a masterpiece performance in an incandescent atmosphere.
Their momentum is remarkable. They have scored 13 goals in their last three matches and their leaders in attack (Florian Thauvin, Payet, Kostas Mitroglou and Lucas Ocampos) are all in their best form this season, at the right time, just when it matters the most. Defensively, it is not always as good as up front but in midfield Luis Gustavo is the leader, the heart and the soul of the team.
The passionate Marseille fans dream of a historic finale this season. The players believe they can do it. Let's see if together they can deliver.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.