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Apr 15, 2009

Marseille take their turn at the top

After 16-years without a trophy, Olympique de Marseille stand on the verge of ending their barren run in spectacular fashion - by breaking Olympique Lyonnais' seven-year stranglehold on the Ligue 1 title.

As Claude Puel's inconsistent Lyon were held to a 2-2 draw at home by mid-table AS Monaco at the weekend, Erik Gerets' OM stunned Grenoble 4-1 to leapfrog the league leaders and set up an exciting end to the season in France.

Only three points now separate second placed Lyon, Marseille and third placed Girondins de Bordeaux going into the final seven games of the season and it seems that nearly all of France are willing a fresh team to break the defending champions grip on le championnat.

Even Lyon captain Juninho - despondent after just two wins in Les Gones' last nine home encounters - said his side do not necessarily deserve to claim their eighth straight title. Instead, the Brazilian free-kick specialist stated that either of this season's challengers would be worthy winners.

"I'm an honest man and you've got to say that Marseille and Bordeaux have worked well these past two seasons," he said. "This year maybe they deserve to go all the way."

Marseille, who won the last of their eight French titles in 1992, have not led the league so deep into the season since 1998-99 and with a tough trip to Lyon still to come, along with tricky fixtures against Champions League chasing Lille and Toulouse, you may expect a dampening of expectations at the Stade Velodrome, but that is not the case.

A capacity crowd of 58,000 vociferously cheered their team off the pitch like they had already won the title on Sunday. When training resumed on Monday, 500 supporters were there to greet the squad at their Commanderie training complex.

One of Gerets' toughest tasks as the season nears conclusion could well be to keep emotions in check and the team fully focused now that the pressure of leading the league is upon them. But the coach himself admitted to getting caught up in the reverie that succeeded Lyon dropping points this weekend.

"At the final whistle, I screamed so hard that I believe in the centre of Fuveau, people were frightened," the Belgian said. "It's really good for us that Lyon have been held in check. We want to win something this season."

His outburst marks a change in outlook for Gerets, at least publicly, as back in February he was eager to rule his side out of the title race, despite being only five points behind Lyon. His reservations were justified at the time as Les Phocéens had failed on three separate occasions to close the gap on the leaders.

Now, however, it is Marseille who are on top and it is difficult not to get carried away in the euphoria that has swept across France. The potential of a fresh champion has generated a renewed interest in Ligue 1.

The title would also provide a form of redemption and rebirth for Marseille, who have not won any silverware of note since the murky events that helped them scoop the inaugural UEFA Champions League trophy in 1993.

Shortly after their triumph over AC Milan in the final, OM, who remain the only French side to win Europe's top prize, were demoted in disgrace to France's second division because of a corruption scandal. It was discovered that president Bernard Tapie had bribed Valenciennes FC into throwing a league game, allowing Marseille to win the title and giving them more time to concentrate on the final against Milan.

Marseille were subsequently stripped of the French title by the FFF that season and were also unable to defend their European crown the following campaign after being thrown out of the competition by UEFA.

The French club returned to the top flight in 1996 and, under current coach Gerets, OM are looking to reclaim past glories. Summer signings such as Hatem Ben Arfa, a 22-year-old forward from Lyon, are a sign of a team building for the future whilst winter deals for veteran striker Sylvain Wiltord and Brazilian workhorse Brandao have consolidated their title push.

Goalscoring is also a team building exercise at the Stade Velodrome. While Lyon rely heavily on Karim Benzema (14) and Bordeaux on Marouane Chamakh (10) and the now injured Fernando Cavenaghi (13) to get the goals; Marseille, the league's top scorers with 52, spread them around with the club's leading hit-men Mamadou Niang and Bakari Koné only finding the net eight times each.

While Lyon's form has suffered along with Benzema's - he has netted only twice since February 24, both against Le Mans - it could be argued that Gerets side can more easily absorb the loss of form of a key player.

It must also be pointed out that while Marseille have done well to put themselves in pole position, reigning champions Lyon are a side in transition. The standards at the Stade de Gerland have slipped somewhat and while Gerets' side boosted their ranks in the January window, Lyon's were depleted by the exit of unsettled Brazilian striker Fred.

Lyon's performances of late have lacked the verve of previous years and their league winning points tally has steadily decreased since 2005-06. Last season, Laurent Blanc's Bordeaux came from nowhere to miss out on the title on the last day of the season and this season could provide a similar story.

Gerets, whose contract with Marseille expires at the end of the season, expects it to be a close run thing once again this term and, following the weekend's 4-1 win over Grenoble, said he was concerned that the title race might be decided on goal difference. However it is decided, Nigerian left-back Taye Taiwo, who scored two goals in Marseille's victory, is in no doubt where the Ligue 1 title will be heading.

"Marseille will be champions," Taiwo proclaimed. "We're right up there and there's no way we're going to give up this position between now and the end of the season."

For the sake of French football, let's hope he is right.

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