New faces, same goals for Marseille
© AFP

'Never change a winning team,' goes the established footballing wisdom and, after years of instability following victory in the UEFA Champions League in 1993, it is a formula that in recent years finally helped Marseille mount regular Ligue 1 title challenges and hold their own in Europe.

Even though that European success was the club's last piece of major silverware, l'OM have been heading in the right direction over the last few seasons. Even when a series of unfortunate incidents during the close-season threatened to undo that good work, the team have since emerged seemingly unscathed to become the pre-season favourites to win Ligue 1.

Followers of the French giants have grown used to turbulence and controversy throughout their club's history, though nothing could have prepared them for the news of the passing of Robert Louis-Dreyfus, Marseille's owner since 1996. This tragic event was the latest in a series of setbacks which began before the end of last season, when much-loved coach Eric Gerets announced he would be moving on: something many believe had a negative impact on the club's title challenge. Just a few short weeks later President Pape Diouf was shown the door, this after a positive five-year tenure which brought stability and credibility back to l'OM.

The duo's exit was met with noisy consternation by the demanding Marseille faithful, but the appointment of former playing icon Didier Deschamps as coach swiftly lifted morale. "Marseille are like the French equivalent of Barcelona or Napoli: there's a passion for football that you don't get anywhere else," said Jean-Claude Dassier, who has stepped into Diouf's role as President. "We've got a solid, talented and experienced team. So there's no excuse for having a bad season. We've got to pull out all the stops this year."

Dassier and his fellow executives have backed up these words by spending around 40 million Euros on new signings, with nearly half that sum going on FC Porto captain and Argentinian international Lucho Gonzalez. Fellow Spanish-speakers to have joined El Comandante (The Commander) at the Stade Velodrome are Real Madrid's Gabriel Heinze, a national-team colleague of Gonzalez whose rugged displays should help fans overlook a previous spell at rivals Paris Saint-Germain, and Fernando Morientes, a key member of Deschamps' Monaco side which reached the 2004 Champions League final, who was out of contract at Valencia.

Having failed to progress from the group stage of Europe's top club competition in the last two seasons, l'OM will be hoping to pierce that glass ceiling with the addition of these proven performers plus the likes of Cameroon's Stephane M'bia (Rennes), fiery wide-player Cyril Rool (Nice) and Senegalese central defender Souleymane Diawara, who joins from champions Bordeaux. "Marseille have always played to win," said Deschamps. "Whoever we had signed, I'd still have been set the same objectives. But if I'm given more resources to help achieve those goals I'm not going to say no!"

While Marseille have yet to get their Ligue 1 campaign underway, with their first match coming on Saturday 8 August with a visit to Grenoble, they have fired a number of warning shots across their rivals' bows in pre-season. This is underlined by a number of polls in the French press which have predicted a Marseille league triumph, including a survey of coaches by France Football and a questionnaire of top-flight trainers, players and presidents in L'Équipe. "There's always a lot expected of l'OM, it's the same every year," continued Deschamps, part of that 1993 Europe-conquering side. "Everyone can think what they want but the only truth is what happens on the pitch. And we'll make sure that's where we're effective."

Having finished third two seasons ago and runners-up last campaign, Deschamps' stated objective of "finishing one place higher than last season", would cap a logical progression and a first league championship since 1991/92. But with Laurent Blanc's Bordeaux having so far kept most of their title-winning squad together and Lyon also having spent huge sums during the transfer window, l'OM will not have things all their own way.