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.
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