Marseille burst into title gear
For their rivals in the Ligue 1 title race, the manner in which Olympique Marseille have muscled their way into position in recent weeks bears an ominous trace of deja vu. Just as they did last season, when they ended an 18-year wait for the French title, Marseille are steadily grinding out results while their opponents flounder.
The 2-1 comeback victory at Montpellier on Sunday enabled Didier Deschamps's side to close within a point of wobbling leaders Lille, who were held to a 1-1 draw by Bordeaux the day before. Meanwhile, third-placed Lyon saw their title ambitions slip with a 1-0 loss at Paris Saint-Germain that left them six points off pace with seven games remaining.
Marseille's victory at Montpellier bore all the hallmarks of the club's success under Deschamps. The visitors fell behind in the 64th minute, but reacted immediately through Andre-Pierre Gignac who applied a deft lob finish to Benoit Cheyrou's exquisite raking pass. The winning goal arrived eight minutes from time with Taye Taiwo dispatching an assured penalty after Abdelhamid El Kaoutari had been penalised for holding back Loic Remy.
"I won't say that we were in control of proceedings, but the most important thing was to take the points," said Deschamps.
Coincidentally, it was at Montpellier's Stade de la Mosson that last season's title charge also began. A 2-0 defeat on 30 January left Marseille 12 points behind defending champions Bordeaux in sixth place, but the players' reaction was a 15-game unbeaten run that included seven straight wins in March and April, taking them to the brink of the title.
The psychological turning point in the 2009/10 title race arrived two months later, when Marseille defeated Bordeaux 3-1 in the final of the League Cup. It was Marseille's first major honour since Deschamps lifted the UEFA Champions League title as captain in 1993 and Bordeaux never recovered, losing five of their next six games and ultimately finishing the season in sixth place.
Marseille will defend their League Cup crown against Montpellier next Saturday and few would bet against a victory at Stade de France galvanising OM's title assault in similar fashion. Gritty pragmatism was the hallmark of last year's successes - Rennes coach Frederic Antonetti called them "Italian-style champions" - and Marseille have been forced to rely on the same attributes this term.
"Since I've been at OM, we've always been better in the second half of the season," said Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda. "When everything's on the line, the guys have the ability to be there at the key moments."