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Mar 22, 2011

Serial drama persists at Marseille

Forget perfume, fashion and top-class footballers, France's most popular export is soap opera Plus Belle La Vie. It is so beloved that one of its most famous viewers, the humourless ex-tennis star Justine Henin, happily ridiculed herself by appearing in it. Appropriately enough it is set in Marseille, a city whose football club probably boasts still more plotlines than the series, and where everyday reality is often stranger than fiction.

Having said that, things have been relatively calm on the pitch of late with Didier Deschamps' side beating arch-rivals Paris Saint Germain 2-1 on Sunday to move into second place - four points shy of leaders Lille - and give their passionate supporters very real hope that a record-equalling tenth Ligue 1 title could be heading to Stade Velodrome.

That looked far from likely as Marseille, the reigning champions, made a start to the campaign so sluggish it is a surprise they did not leave a glistening trail behind them. Newly-promoted Caen pooped the Velodrome party on the opening day with a shock win before Valenciennes, a workmanlike mid-table outfit, made it a miserable trip for the OM fans who had trekked north. No reigning champion has ever retained their title after losing the opening two games of the season, meaning Deschamps needed to roll his sleeves up.

He also had to provide a shoulder to cry on for new signings Loic Remy and Andre-Pierre Gignac, picked up for a combined total of €31.5 million. The OM kit man was most likely on overtime given the amount of tears the duo must have shed as they struggled to adapt to life in the big pond of Marseille having swum fairly effectively in the paddling pools of Nice and Toulouse, particularly as there was the added touch of drama that only OM can supply with Remy's move in doubt after a cardiac defect was initially diagnosed in his medical, only to later be ruled out.

Remy - a promising, pacy forward who bears more than a passing resemblance to Thierry Henry in both physiognomy and playing style - and Gignac, a workmanlike striker whose transfer fee was grossly inflated by a league-leading 24-goal haul in 2008-09, failed painfully to fill the void left by Mamadou Niang's departure. Deschamps - reportedly privately angered by the club's decision to opt to splash out huge sums for players with good re-sale value rather than cough up a similar sum for a proven Champions League goalscorer - had to defend the new recruits he had not really wanted.

"I'm not going to put Gignac on trial," said 'Dede', who had written to Santa Claus for a Luis Fabiano or Alberto Gilardino. "He was used to one style of play, here it's a bit different, but that's not to say he's lost his qualities."

Deschamps, or perhaps the club's decision-makers, have finally been proved right with Remy and Gignac both coming into form, particularly since the turn of the year. Remy is the club's top scorer with eight goals in Ligue 1, while Gignac has scored four in eight and chipped in with a brace of assists.

Indeed, the duo's renaissance has coincided with an improvement in results that means OM boast the best record in the division in 2011. The making-up-a-seemingly-unbridgeable-gap trick is one they already pulled off with aplomb last season, coming back from eight points down on Bordeaux. This year the gap to leaders Lille was only six points at the halfway stage, though they have had to come from fifth - rather than second - to close on the northerners. A half-decent start would have seen them a lot closer.

It appears the scriptwriters for the 2010-11 episode forgot to add a touch of romance to keep viewers keen though. Free-scoring last season - they had ten more goals at this stage - obdurate defence has instead been the watchword of OM this season with the uncompromising Souleymane Diawara and Stephane Mbia doing their bit to ensure the 'takes no prisoners' tag gets a frequent airing. However, while title rivals Rennes - the only club to have a better 'goals against' tally than OM in the division - can get away with being successful but boring, Marseille cannot.

"It's not really the results that are worrying, it's how they're playing," esteemed journal France Football said earlier in the season, discounting the 7-0 Champions League thrashing of Zilina as Marseille's opponents were simply "too rubbish". Influential local paper La Provence added more recently: "With the exception of some fleeting highlights, OM's displays have been much of a muchness: soporific and marked by outrageous fortune. There can always be a debate over the organisation of the team and the quality of their play, but - in our opinion - the players are the main ones responsible for this unattractive run, period. They've only performed in line with their status in discussions destined to redraw the wage structure and double their bonuses after a streaky win."

Not that Deschamps, a man steeped in the 'win first, win second, and play well third' values of modern-day football, cares much about the criticism. "There are two places on a football pitch where you have to be effective," the world's most be-medalled 'water carrier' said with characteristic pragmatism. "Things have been going pretty well in that regard for some time now."

The players themselves also insist that their heart is in the club. "The most important thing was the solidarity and character of the whole team, especially after the equaliser," freshly-signed international full-back Rod Fanni said, explaining how, after PSG had cancelled out a fine Gabriel Heinze free-kick, they were able to pick themselves up and get all three points thanks to an Andre Ayew header at the weekend. "That solidarity helped us hold onto our lead and win."

That 'one-for-all and all-for-OM' outlook has already been seen in the way they rebounded after losing to Lille to beat fellow title chasers Rennes and PSG in successive weeks, and will be needed in the run-in with Lille unlikely to implode the way Bordeaux did to smooth OM's path to the championship.

The possibility that a 57-year wait for French football's biggest prize may come to an end has steeled the northerners' resolve to keep the pack at bay, witnessed by a recent last-gasp 2-1 win at the Velodrome that handed OM their only league defeat of the New Year to date.

Marseille do appear to be Lille's most serious challengers, though, having taken 11 points from seven games against the other teams currently in the top five this season, the best record of any of the quintet. While Lille have to face both PSG and Rennes in the final two games of the season, Deschamps only has to pit his wits against Claude Puel and Lyon in an otherwise clement run-in. With only the OL squad able to rival that of OM in terms of strength-in-depth and experience, and their fellow title pretenders facing trickier run-ins, Deschamps' men look well-placed. However, as ever at Marseille, there are more than a few clouds lurking on the horizon.

Lucho Gonzalez orchestrated last season's late charge, but the Argentine international has been off-colour this term with three assists compared to seven at the same stage last season when he also went on to register another four to finish as Ligue 1's leading goalmaker. Having been robbed at gunpoint alongside his partner and their infant son at their home at 4am only last week, Lucho's mind is most likely - and understandably - elsewhere, and he may soon be as well, with reports suggesting his family could return to Oporto as a result of the incident.

Add to that Brandao, whose inept finishing has made him the scapegoat of the Velodrome, facing possible charges of sexual assault and looking likely to be loaned to Brazilian club Cruzeiro, and uncertainty over the futures of defenders Taye Taiwo and Heinze, and there is more than enough off-the-pitch commotion to unsettle a squad.

At Marseille, though, such events are almost run-of-the-mill given the club's colourful past, which includes the match-fixing scandal of the larger-than-life Bernard Tapie and the dodgy transfer dealings of ex-coach Rolland Courbis, reinvented as a pundit after a spell in prison. It is little wonder the script writers of Plus Belle La Vie have kept the series running so successfully the last seven years. Who needs imagination when you have got OM?

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