LE SPIRO: HENRY TO HEAP MORE MISERY ON MARSEILLE?
With Marseille's fans turning on their own team, and Monaco showing signs of improvement, Matthew Spiro is expecting Thierry Henry's charges to spring an upset at the Vélodrome on Sunday.
The atmosphere is likely to be hostile, raucous, and even a little toxic as far as the hosts are concerned. This week, OM's fan groups have been calling on supporters to attend the forthcoming Ligue 1 fixture in their masses in order to send a clear message to the management: the current situation is unacceptable.
Under-fire coach Rudi Garcia - who has been powerless to stop an alarming decline that intensified with last Sunday's Coupe de France elimination by fourth-tier outfit Andrézieux - will bear the brunt of the anger, although club president Jacques-Henri Eyraud and American owner Frank McCourt surely won't escape the inevitable invective.
Such is life at Marseille. Six months ago, a wave of passion and excitement returned to the port city when Garcia masterminded a run to the Europa League final. The glory days, it seemed, were just around the corner… yet those thoughts proved very premature.
The club endured a disastrous summer in the transfer market. The three additions - Duje Caleta Car, Nemanja Radonjic and Kevin Strootman - have done little other than inflate the wage bill. Yet most puzzling of all was the decision not to sign a centre forward. Neither Valère Germain nor Kostas Mitroglou looked capable of leading the Marseille attack last season, and with their confidence now shot it's hard not to feel sorry for them as they chase lost causes.
The downturn isn't only due to the transfer dealings. World Cup winners Florian Thauvin, Adil Rami and Steve Mandanda have experienced varying degrees of difficulty, Luiz Gustavo appears disillusioned, and Garcia - with a limited squad - is fast running out of ideas.
Adding Mario Balotelli to an already fragile group surely isn't the best step either. Marseille wanted and failed to land the Italian last summer, and are reportedly trying to lure him again from Nice this month, yet Balotelli's form has been abysmal and he's hardly a player renowned for digging in during tough times.
Out of Europe and the two domestic cups, Marseille can at least focus their efforts entirely on the league now. Thanks largely to the inconsistency of the teams around them, they are sixth and just five points off a Champions League berth. But right now it's hard to see where the improvement will come from, and the vehement calls for Garcia's head are unlikely to aid this flagging team.
The same cannot be said for Monaco. Admittedly the principality side begin 2019 from a lowly position - they are 19th, just two points off the bottom - but at least an action plan is in place. Naldo, the 36-year-old defender, and ex-LOSC defender Fodé Ballo-Touré have been signed this week - and to the excitement of all Ligue 1 fans Cesc Fabregas is expected to follow.
The Spaniard is just the man Henry needs right now, and the France legend deserves huge credit if he succeeds in landing his former Arsenal team-mate. Henry has struggled to get his ideas across at times. With Fabregas, he'll have an ally and a voice out on the pitch. This is a player not only capable of orchestrating the midfield and winning matches through his skill and vision, he can also federate an entire team. And at 31, Fabregas won't be coming to Stade Louis II hoping to ease in to retirement.
On Wednesday, Monaco fought their way through to the Coupe de la Ligue semi-final by beating Rennes on penalties. Boosted by the return to fitness of Rony Lopes, who netted the equaliser, Monaco showed spirit, resolve and at times some quality too. But it was also fascinating to observe and listen to Henry. Throughout the game Monaco's manager stood by the touchline, encouraging, cajoling and repositioning his players. He looked totally committed and energised, as though refuelled by the winter break.
The only moments you couldn't hear Henry were when retreated to the dugout to speak to his new assistant Franck Passi. Appointed just before Christmas, Passi may well prove Henry's shrewdest recruit of all. This is a man who knows the league inside out and will be able to harness Henry's ideas and enthusiasm. Passi has coached at the highest level. He's even had a couple of spells in charge of OM. On Sunday night, Monaco will be hopeful of continuing their mini revival in Marseille. And Passi will surely feel grateful that he's sitting in the away dugout, rather than wearing Rudi Garcia's boots.