Classique even Zlatan looks forward to

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High stakes: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (L) and Marcelo Bielsa (R).

Olympique de Marseille host Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday in Le Classique, French football’s biggest game which will go some way in defining the outcome of this season’s title race in Ligue 1.

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Both sides’ fortunes varied considerably throughout the course of the season with PSG struggling to assert their authority in a league they were expected to walk and OM running out of steam after intense opening months. They meet on Sunday as second and third respectively in the league, with a game in hand over leaders Lyon. Stakes are so high even Marcelo Bielsa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, recently pinned down for their open apathy towards French football authorities, will keenly be looking forward to this Classique.

Bielsa started off the season rejuvenating a listless OM squad that ended 2013-14 sixth in the league. The flamboyant Argentinian manager led the side to eight consecutive league wins between August and October with his trademark brand of high-paced football. However, the effects of his hands-on approach began to falter as Marseille suffered four defeats in six league games in December and January, initially appearing to dash hopes of a league title. Bielsa himself looked frustration, expressing his disagreement with the club administration and reportedly sounding out opportunities of an early-stage exit abroad.

Just when OM and their coach looked completely out of the picture, a combination of renewed efforts from his players and lack of real authority from competitors threw Bielsa’s team back into the mix. A victory on Sunday would see Marseille leapfrog PSG in the table and reduce their deficit with leaders Lyon to one point.

The excitement surrounding this unusually tight title race, with both PSG and OM actively involved, gives an extra dimension to Le Classique. Following up on previous administrations’ efforts the PSG top executives have worked to dissipate the shadier sides of this rivalry, particularly clashes between fans, to bring the focus on the sporting side of this encounter. The commercial interest in a strong rivalry between the two largest French cities benefits both clubs although Nasser al Khelaifi might have been happier with his men more firmly in command of the league.

Despite an occasionally bumpy ride, the Parisians are still on course to complete an astonishing quadruple after defeating Chelsea in the Champions League last month and working their way through both domestic Cup competitions. They enter Sunday’s Classique the marginal favorites, despite suffering a 3-2 loss in their last league game away from home, at Bordeaux on March 15.

The controversy which surrounded Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ensuing criticism of France has somewhat overshadowed the fact the Swedish striker is regaining form at a crucial stage of the season. He has scored eight times in his last four games for club and country and can become PSG’s best ever scorer in Le Classique if he scores on Sunday. He is currently on par with Pedro Pauleta with six units.

OM will also be looking at their their front-line to sort out this contest, as ever this season under Marcelo Bielsa. The hosts are extremely motivated to get a first win over their arch-rivals since 2011 but will be deprived of their key midfield man Giannelli Imbula, who is suspended after a yellow card against Lyon a fortnight ago.

Imbula has been the most important player in Bielsa’s system this season, starting every game and driving the side forward with his verticality. His absence on Sunday will be missed against Paris Saint-Germain’s physical midfield. Imbula had been perhaps OM’s best player in the first encounter between both sides last November before earning an unfair red card which was later rescinded.

Andre-Pierre Gignac (L) and Edinson Cavani (R).

Mario Lemina is expected to take on Imbula’s responsibilities but the France Under-21 midfielder has lacked consistency at this level this season and will be a primary target in this impending tactical battle. Whether he pulls through will define OM’s ability to hold off their opponents and maintain their title dream alive.

Despite their earlier frustration, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcelo Bielsa will therefore clearly be looking to shine in this turning point of their stay in France, and add another twist to the Ligue 1 title race in the final stages of the season.

OM likely starting line-up: Mandanda – Dja Djedje, Fanni, Morel, Mendy – Romao, Lemina – Thauvin, Payet, Ayew – Gignac

PSG likely starting line-up: Sirigu – Marquinhos, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Maxwell – Verratti, Motta, Matuidi – Pastore, Ibrahimovic, Cavani

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Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti wants to make the Bernabeu a happier place

Andy West 5/04/2015
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Under pressure: Carlo Ancelotti.

Carlo Ancelotti is hoping to give Real Madrid fans something to cheer in this afternoon’s clash with struggling Granada.

A negative mood has been circling Los Blancos after a run of just one win in five games, culminating in a 2-1 defeat against Barcelona, which has seen them surrender a four-point lead at the top of La Liga.

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The atmosphere at the Bernabeu has been far from supportive at times in recent home games, with a Champions League defeat against Schalke prompting a particularly vitriolic reaction. And Ancelotti accepts that only improved performances will restore a more positive outlook from his team’s demanding supporters.

He said: “The atmosphere at the Bernabeu depends on how the team plays. If we play well, the fans will get behind us and help us. I think we all know how important this moment is for us.”

Ancelotti confirmed that James Rodriguez will start today after recovering from a broken bone in his foot, with a suspension for fellow attacking midfielder Isco providing the Colombian with a ready-made route back into the starting line-up after two months on the sidelines.

Gareth Bale will also play despite coming in for heavy criticism during the team’s slump in form, and Ancelotti believes the international break – which saw Bale score twice to fire Wales to victory over Israel – will have done the winger a power of good.

“The time away has helped him to rebuild his confidence – it’s helped all of us,” admitted Ancelotti.

Another attractive game today sees in-form Valencia aiming to maintain their grip on third place as they host dangerous local rivals Villarreal.

After a disappointing couple of seasons, Valencia’s change in ownership and management with the arrival of Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim and Portuguese coach Nuno have signalled a much improved campaign, with Los Che heading into today’s derby on the back of a seven-game unbeaten run.

Today’s schedule is completed by a crucial battle between two teams just outside the relegation zone as Getafe host Deportivo La Coruna, who are looking for their first win since early February.

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Rival managers Carlo Ancelotti and Luis Enrique differ in opinion on La Liga title run in

Andy West 5/04/2015
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Fit to start: Lionel Messi has overcome injury and will line up against Celta Vigo on Sunday.

Luis Enrique and Carlo Ancelotti have an unsurprising difference of opinion over Barcelona and Real Madrid’s prospects over the remainder of the season.

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Barca boss Enrique, whose side have the luxury of being able to drop points after establishing a four-point lead at the top of the table with a 2-1 Clasico win before the international break, does not believe it will be possible for either side to win all 10 remaining games.

“I hope I’m wrong and that we can do it, but I don’t think anyone can win all 10 games,” he said ahead of Sunday’s trip to Celta Vigo. “Every game is important and judging by what we know from previous seasons, nothing is ever easy.”

Under-pressure Madrid chief Ancelotti, however, claims that his players are perfectly capable of gaining the maximum 30 points from their remaining fixtures – something they may well have to do to snatch the title away from Barca.

“We have the quality to do that – it’s not a Utopian dream,” said the Italian coach. “We did it from September to December and we can do it again.

“We’re convinced the league is still wide open, but we cannot afford any more slips. We have suffered a dip but the players are fresh and fired up.”

Barca chief Enrique argued that his team’s rewards will come automatically if they continue their recent form, saying: “I just hope my team finishes the season better than it started, and so far it looks like we’re heading that way.

“There’s no secret formula – it’s just a question of working hard and living up to the standards we set for ourselves.”

Enrique is relieved to have Lionel Messi available after the Argentine star missed his country’s friendly fixtures against El Salvador and Ecuador with a foot injury.

Messi came through Saturday’s training sessions with flying colours and Enrique played down the extent of the problem, saying: “He’s been training the same as the rest and he’s fine.

“Leo’s always getting kicked so you can’t avoid knocks, but he’s in perfect shape.”

Today’s trip to Vigo will be Enrique’s first return to his former club since quitting the Balaidos for the Nou Camp last summer, and he is expected to receive a warm welcome from home fans who remain grateful for his efforts in leading the team to a ninth placed finish last season – their highest since 2006.

The feeling of respect is mutual as Enrique admitted he still has a lot of affection for the Galician club, saying: “I can’t wait to go back because Vigo was such a special place for me. I learned a lot of new things there – it is a unique city and holds some fantastic memories for me.” 

Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo acknowledged that Barca were all too aware of Celta’s capabilities after their surprise 1-0 win five months ago.

“The fact that they won at Camp Nou makes us look at it from another point of view,” he said. “We have to be vigilant against Celta, but above all we must rely on our own play. We know that every game we play in the league can affect the standings and we have a difficult opponent.”

Chile international Bravo knows Eduardo Berizzo – who took over as Celta coach last May – from his spell on the national team’s coaching staff, and reckons his “very dedicated and methodical” style is reflected in Celta’s play.

“He likes to control the ball,” Bravo said of his countryman. “When they don’t have possession, they’re aggressive in getting it back.”

Enrique will be missing Javier Mascherano through suspension while left-back Jordi Alba is likely to be out for another week with a hamstring injury sustained on international duty with Spain.

Versatile Brazilian Adriano is set to deputise for Alba, while Mascherano’s absence means that Gerard Pique and Jeremy Mathieu will continue the central defensive partnership which earned rave reviews after the victory over Madrid a fortnight ago.

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