LE SPIRO: MARSEILLE TO HAVE LAST LAUGH?
By M. Spiro
A month ago, Marseille were on the receiving end of many of a joke. Yet on Sunday, the rejuvenated southerners can have the last laugh by beating a wounded PSG in the all-important Classique, writes Ligue1.com's Matthew Spiro.
Paris Saint-Germain - Olympique de Marseille (kick-off 21:00CET)
Twenty-seven points separate them in the standings, and there is an even bigger gulf in the budgets of France's two biggest clubs. But league positions and player status will go out of the window at the Parc des Princes this weekend, with the pressure firmly on the hosts after their latest European setback. Manchester United's improbable victory in the French capital was celebrated almost as vociferously on the Vieux Port as it was in northwest England, and the PSG players are clearly hurting.
The question is will they be able to turn that hurt in to motivation in time for Le Classique? Last Sunday, Thomas Tuchel's charges were roundly jeered by their very own ultras as they trained the Parc des Princes. And while there was a semblance of forgiveness in the air on Tuesday when the PSG players got applauded by the away fans following the 4-0 win at Dijon, Sunday is the first home game since Marcus Rashford shattered the Parisians' European dream prematurely once again.
WATCH: What happened in the first Classique this season
It is the biggest domestic game of the season, a game the title-holders simply cannot afford to lose, and yet they are unlikely to be able to bank on the support of their own fans. Talk of a grève d'encouragements (a refusal to back the team) from the PSG fans appear wide of the mark, but those infuriated supporters could easily turn on their own players if Marseille start to get the upper hand.
Yes, the capital side are roaring towards their second-straight league title and the sixth of the Qatari era, but the manner of their latest European exit has left many fans disillusioned and even angry with the players. They feel - and with quite some justification - that a team of such immense talent should not be surrendering a two-goal lead at home. Just as it should not have frittered away a four-goal first-leg advantage in the Camp Nou two years ago.
PSG have dominated this fixture in recent times. Indeed, since Qatar Sports Investment purchased the club in 2011, Paris have won seven and drawn one of the eight league fixtures against Marseille at the Parc des Princes. Yet two factors suggest Sunday might be different. Firstly, the passionate, ear-splitting support PSG have received in the past is unlikely to be present. Secondly, this game comes at an ideal time for Marseille.
Rudi Garcia's side has come out of its slump and they travel north in fine form having picked up 16 points from a possible 18. Without Europe or domestic cups to 'distract' them, OM are pushing hard to qualify for the Champions League, and they are now just three points behind third-placed Lyon.
Since the arrival of a top-class striker in the guise of Mario Balotelli in January - and Garcia's decision to suddenly adopt a ruthless streak with regards to team selection - Marseille are looking like a coherent, highly motivated team again.
Indeed, following an abysmal run of 14 defeats in just over three months, the ex-AS Roma boss decided none of his players would be automatic picks anymore. Subsequently, the likes of Dimitri Payet, Adil Rami, Kevin Strootman and Luiz Gustavo have endured extended spells on the bench. They are four of the highest earners at the club, but none have played to their potential this season. All four are likely to remain sidelined this weekend.
By taking such a tough stance, Garcia is sending a hugely positive message to the rest of the squad: play well and you will be picked, regardless of your salary of status. Boubacar Kamara, Duje Caleta-Car, Morgan Sanson and Maxime Lopez are among those to have seized their opportunities.
Marseille still have a long way to go, but the return of healthy competition and the arrival of a talismanic forward have already transformed their short-term fortunes. On Sunday, Balotelli and friends have the chance to render an extremely trying season far more palatable for the Marseille fans - and they could give their Parisian rivals even more to stew on in the process.