Olympique de Marseille coach Rudi Garcia insists his side are capable of taking their fight for a UEFA Champions League place right down to the wire as they head to Normandy to face SM Caen before a sell-out crowd on Friday.
SM Caen - Olympique de Marseille
The Stade Michel-d'Ornano will be packed to its 20,000 capacity for the visit of an OM side who lie third in the table, a point behind Olympique Lyonnais in second and one point ahead of the reigning champions AS Monaco in fourth. With Paris Saint-Germain 11 points clear at the top of the Ligue 1 Conforama standings, it has long looked like that illustrious trio are going to spend the rest of the campaign fighting it out for two qualifying berths in next season's Champions League.
Marseille have showcased their credentials in recent weeks, winning their last three league games since a 2-0 defeat in Lyon last month. After brushing aside Stade Rennais FC 3-0 last weekend, they had to dig deep to overcome RC Strasbourg Alsace at the Orange Vélodrome on Tuesday. Valère Germain had a penalty saved before substitutes Clinton Njie and Dimitri Payet scored late goals. Meanwhile, their two rivals have both dropped points already in 2018.
"There is only two points between us all after 20 games, so there have to be similarities," Garcia said when asked if he felt OM were equipped to last the distance. "We will see if any factors make the difference, like Europe - Monaco are out altogether - or injuries."
Highlights: Payet brilliance caps OM win against Strasbourg
"Since the start of the season, every point has counted. Ourselves, Monaco and Lyon all have a lot of points and I won't even talk about Paris, they will go past 100 points. That shows how fast the pace is at the top and how great it would be if we had four Champions League qualifying spots like our friends in Spain, Italy, Germany and England."
That defeat in Lyon is Marseille's only loss in their last 16 Ligue 1 Conforama matches. Only PSG have a better record than OM in that period, and Garcia's side still have to play Monaco and OL at home. Indeed, Monaco visit the Vélodrome next weekend, after Marseille go to fourth-tier Epinal in the Coupe de France on Tuesday.
Wanting to take some of the pressure off his team, Garcia said: "There is nothing to be gained by making ambitious plans. We will see if we are still in the fight with Lyon and Monaco when it comes down to the last few matches. It looks like being that way, but things can change very quickly in this league. Apart from Paris, who will be head and shoulders above the rest, it will be tight for second, third and fourth. Maybe another thief will come up from behind."
Caen: Renewed vigour
A win in Normandy will leave Marseille in second place until Lyon and Monaco play on Sunday. And recent history suggests that OM should fancy their chances - they won 5-0 at home to Caen in the reverse fixture in November and triumphed 5-1 at the Stade Michel-d'Ornano last season. Indeed, they have not lost here in the top flight since 1997.
"We will once again be playing before everyone else and so we have the chance to put pressure on our direct rivals. We have done rather well in the last two matches and we will be able to sit back and watch the others in peace if we have won," said Garcia, who is without Morgan Sanson due to a knee injury suffered in midweek.
Caen have renewed vigour thanks to a 2-0 victory at crisis club Girondins de Bordeaux on Tuesday, when they went ahead through Ivan Santini's 89th-minute penalty before Ronny Rodelin sealed the points with a magnificent effort from almost on the halfway line.
Highlights: Santini, Rodelin on target in Caen win at Bordeaux
That was just Caen's second win in 10 league games, and both have come against Bordeaux. They also have the worst attack in the division with just 14 goals scored, and yet despite that they can go as high as seventh if they win.
Caen fans must wonder where they would be without their front two - Santini has scored seven league goals and Rodelin four of the team's 14. The lanky forward is now preparing to come up against Garcia, under whom he played at LOSC.
"I think that everything that is happening today at Caen comes from all the work I put in at Lille," Rodelin said. "It is great to score lovely goals but the most important thing for me is that the ball crosses the line. I want to score goals. When I see the emotion in the squad at the end of the match in Bordeaux, that is what really makes me think I have a great job. To see all my teammates and the staff so happy, that is what makes me really want to get out of bed every day."
The home side are without Youssef Aït Bennasser and Adama Mbengue but veteran goalkeeper Rémy Vercoutre returns after suspension.
Caen: Vercoutre; Guilbert, Da Silva, Djiku, Bessat; Stavitski, Sankoh, Féret (c), Bazile; Rodelin, Santini
Marseille: Mandanda; Sarr, Rami, Rolando, Sakai: Zambo Anguissa, Luiz Gustavo; Thauvin, Payet (c), Ocampos; Germain