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Sep 28, 2006

Ribery, Roland and rebirth

A cursory glance at the Ligue 1 table would tell your average punter that the state of affairs named after a British rock band - status quo - reigns once again in France.

Five-time champions Lyon are at the top of the table, but take another quick look and you will also find a familiar name in second - Olympique Marseille.

For all Lyon's league titles and utter domestic domination, Gerard Houllier's club simply cannot compete in the affection stakes with the south coast club known universally by its acronym 'OM,' France's veritable team of hearts.

And now the most controversial, best-loved club in France is back at the right end of the table for one of the first times since Fabien Barthez had hair.

Not since a balmy, barmy night in Munich in 1993 when Milan were conquered by Basile Boli's bonce have the club looked so likely to add some silverware to a now musty, dusty Stade Velodrome trophy cabinet.

The club has come close in the 13 years since they were crowned European champions and won - and were then stripped of - their last Ligue 1 title.

There have been two UEFA Cup finals - in 1999 and a Didier Drogba-inspired appearance in 2004 - a couple of top five finishes and some tear-strewn French Cup finals, but no winners' medals.

And while they have singularly failed to collect trophies, they have drawn up a list of ex-managers, presidents and innumerable backroom staff changes lengthy enough to make Tolstoy look succinct.

Former Portsmouth coach Alain Perrin, ex-Japan boss Philippe Troussier and Ligue 1 stalwart Jean Fernandez have all had their rear ends more or less scorched by the Marseille hot-seat since January 2004, with current sporting director Jose Anigo also having a pop at the helm.

But under temporary boss Albert Emon - a Ligue 1 title winner with OM as a player in the 1970s - things have been uncharacteristically calm at a club whose volatility usually registers on the Richter scale.

Emon was promoted from assistant coach over the summer after Fernandez quit the club under a cloud - gangland threats and backroom back-stabbings just two of the more believeable rumours to explain his departure - to head for homely Auxerre, where the greatest danger he faces is from runaway tractors.

Despite his virtually permanent caretaker status, Emon has resisted what must now be an almost natural instinct to spring clean the Stade Velodrome dressing room, and has been rewarded with results.

After Sunday's surprise defeat at struggling Nantes - OM being victims of the 'we've just sacked our boss so we'll now promptly win' syndrome - Emon's side sit three points behind Lyon and a trio ahead of Lens thanks to a run of five straight wins, including a 3-1 masterclass given to nemesis Paris St Germain in the capital.

The majority of the squad are the same as the one that only missed out on this season's Champions League on the last day of the 2005-2006 campaign after results did not go their way, leaving them fifth and with a UEFA Cup campaign via the Intertoto Cup.

And having bucked the club tradition of wholesale change by opting for a minimum of tinkering, Emon now has them playing like genuine Champions League contenders if still some way short of threatening Lyon's domestic stranglehold.

The two goals conceded last weekend at La Beaujoire were the first in open play this season, and doubled the goals against total from their first six games which had seen four clean sheets - an impressive record, and joint best in the country with Nancy.

Key to that has been Ronald Zubar, a 21-year-old centre half dubbed the 'new William Gallas.'

The Guadaloupe-born defender does share more than the territory of his origins and powerfully athletic build with the Arsenal man.

Zubar arrived from bright and breezy Normandy this summer having shone with Caen - as ex-Marseille man Gallas had - and has now pushed Senegal international and club captain Habib Beye to right-back having made himself an ever-present fixture at the heart of the back four.

Another youngster playing his part in the club's renaissance is keeper Cedric Carrasso, who Crystal Palace fans may remember after a loan spell in London, and who is now a 24-year-old with the task of filling Barthez's gloves.

At the club from the age of 13, Carrasso superbly stepped in for Barthez when the erstwhile France custodian cooled his heels on the sidelines for six months having shown his appreciation for a Moroccan referee by spitting on him during a friendly.

With club owner and Adidas bigwig Robert Louis-Dreyfus keeping tight rein on his once slackened purse strings, OM do not have the funds they once had - Barthez's weighty €250,000 monthly salary and Carrasso's sparkling interim enough to persuade the club they could now dispense with the 'Divin Chauve' (the 'Divine Bald One' as 'Fabulous Fab' is also known).

With former PSG midfielders Lorik Cana and Modeste M'Bami - also a summer buy - providing a tigerish barricade in front of the back four along with promising teenage midfielder Samir Nasri, OM have been troubling the scorers at the other end.

Despite Djibril Cisse - on loan from Liverpool after Rafa Benitez told him to learn Spanish or leave Casa Anfield - having to wait until next month to play for the club 'he supported as a boy' as he recovers from a sickening broken leg, the barely glittering array of 'strikers' at Emon's disposal have been in gob-smackingly fine form.

The scoring record in recent seasons must have given food for thought at boardroom level whether the club's motto 'Droit au but' - literally 'straight to the goal' - should be changed given their forwards' inability to find the net.

But that - at least until Cisse comes back - is a thing of the past.

Mamadou Niang and Mikael Pagis are the classic striking double act - not your Little and Large duo, more your Cole and Sheringham, though the Marseille pair do actually talk and pass to each other, and to some effect.

Pagis is all about a sure first-touch and an eye for a pass, so good on the ball that he was once heralded as the 'new Cantona,' which - when the ex-Sochaux man is on his game - seems only a mild exaggeration.

Niang is raw pace and even rawer power, and a partnership which had already proved useful at low-key Strasbourg has been transferred successfully to the south coast - they have seven goals from this season's team total of 13, the second best haul in the league behind Lyon.

The relative lack of transfer activity appears to be paying dividends as familiarity breeds understanding and spirit at a club where - for the past decade - players seemed to arrive at the club's training ground at La Commanderie merely to pick up some free kit before heading for other climes as quickly as you could say Au revoir.'

But undoubtedly the most significant aspect of the lack of transfer activity was Franck Ribery deciding his future - at least for this season - rests on the south coast.

At 23, Ribery has had more clubs than Neanderthal Man, Marseille being his sixth after he arrived from Galatasaray having torn up his contract following the Istanbul side's failure to pay him on time.

However, despite hailing from the dreary northern coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer - a place as far away from Marseille in French geographical, meterological and cultural terms as possible - Ribery has, for now, found his niche on the Mediterranean.

The talent which he had shown at Metz flourished last season to make him the people's - and Raymond Domenech's - choice for the French World Cup squad.

And though his form tailed off as the World Cup approached - a display blander than a supermodel's diet against PSG in the French Cup final springs to mind - Ribery was undoubtedly Les Bleus' Not-balding-man of the Weltmeisterschaft.

The consequent scramble for his signature among Europe's big boys was predictable, with Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, a man so well-versed in the art of tapping up it is a shock he has not moved into plumbing, revealing he would wear a France shirt with Ribery's name on it during the tournament.

The whole hullabaloo left Franck even more predictably 'unsettled' as Lyon were joined by Manchester United, Bayern, Arsenal et al in casting lascivious 'come hither' looks.

After much deliberation, he decided to stay, despite having declared on national news he was going, and has shown his heart still belongs to OM with some startling displays.

After playing on the wing for most of the season, Ribery has been given more licence to roam for both club and country, and the raw material of a successor to Zidane - if not in the languid playmaker mould - is currently having the rough edges rounded off.

But Ribery's love affair with Marseille will undoubtedly end much quicker than the drawn-out saga of this summer's wranglings should the Champions League not be on next season's agenda.

The litmus test of those credentials is just around the corner, with fifth-placed Toulouse to followed by a trip to Lens, who are third.

But it is on October 21 that the truth will out as Ribery and co. must steel themselves for the time when Houllier brings his Lyon tamers into the den of the Stade Velodrome.

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