Tough times at Marseille

By Andy BrassellEuropean football expert
Marseille manager Didier Deschamps (right) watches his team at Toulouse
Coach Deschamps (right) is in charge of a team struggling for form

If Arsenal fans think they've had it tough so far this season, they might spare a thought for their Olympique de Marseille counterparts.

Wednesday's Champions League match between the two teams might be a prestige fixture on paper but, as things stand, it will be a contest between two sides falling well short of expectations.

Arsenal are currently 10th in the Premier League, with 10 points from their eight fixtures.

On Saturday evening, Marseille's uninspiring goalless draw at Toulouse made for a pretty miserable birthday for boss Didier Deschamps. It was a result that left his team an uncomfortably low 15th in Ligue 1 after 10 matches. They are already 14 points behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain.

"The team is unwell - it's difficult to explain," defender Rod Fanni said post-match. "Without doubt, it's a confidence problem."

The prospect of Champions League qualification for next season is already in grave doubt. While Arsenal's chief executive Ivan Gazidis has attempted to exude calm throughout the recent turbulence at the London club, arguing a top-four finish in the Premier League is not vital, the pressing nature of Marseille's plight has been made clear.

Owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus called the club's players and staff to a meeting at the training ground on Thursday during which she outlined their responsibility to help turn fortunes around. Louis-Dreyfus had already sounded the alarm in an interview with French newspaper Le Monde five days before.

"Marseille aren't playing like they should given the money that I've put in," she said. "If I was a true businesswoman, I would have already sold the club."

Louis-Dreyfus stressed on Thursday she does not want to leave, but exhorted the players to "help me keep the club." On Friday, it was confirmed that the club had made a £13.5m loss for the financial year that ended in June.

The good news in terms of the club's short to medium-term on-field stability was the endorsement of Deschamps, described by Louis-Dreyfus as a "great coach". France's World Cup-winning captain ended the club's 17-year trophy drought when they won the league title in 2010 at the end of his first season in charge, but he has been under considerable scrutiny for a while now.

His relationship with sporting director Jose Anigo is fractious, meaning that he has frequently struggled to bring to the club his preferred transfer targets. Deschamps has also been criticised for perceived negative tactics - not just by media and fans, but also by one of his own players, Benoit Cheyrou, last season. An average one goal per game in the league so far this campaign has not helped to change that.

Erstwhile Arsenal targets Loic Remy and Andre Ayew are a dangerous forward pair, but too often they lack support. Last summer's record signing Andre-Pierre Gignac has struggled for goals and fitness, and was sent to a pre-season 'fat camp' in Italy by an unhappy Deschamps. The manager came close to loaning Gignac to Fulham on transfer deadline day, but pulled out of the move at the 11th hour.

Andre Ayew (right) is congratulated after scoring against Dortmund
Ayew (right) was on the scoresheet against Dortmund

The Champions League could yet prove to be Marseille's salvation. They won the first edition of the revamped competition after the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992/93, beating AC Milan in the final. Deschamps captained a star-studded side that featured the likes of Marcel Desailly and Fabien Barthez.

It turned out to be the end for that great Marseille team. Following the Valenciennes bribery scandalexternal-link, the club were stripped of their domestic title and relegated. They were also banned from defending the Champions League but were allowed to keep the title by Uefa, a fact that provided a significant sliver of comfort for the club's supporters during the lean years to come.

For that, and the fact that Marseille are the only French side to have lifted the famous trophy, the club's fans are rarely more fired up than for a night of Champions League football.

The Vélodrome is a noisy and intimidating place for a team to visit, as Manchester United found out as they contested a goalless draw in the first leg of a last-16 tie last season. The feeling in France was that Deschamps failed to instil sufficient belief in his men back in February to topple their esteemed English visitors.

This season Marseille have unquestionably saved their best form for the Champions League this season, so far defeating Olympiakos and the much-fancied Borussia Dortmund.

Ayew scored twice against the German champions, and success in this competition is in his blood. His father, former African footballer of the year Abedi Pele, was in the XI that won the 1993 final.

Regardless of form, Marseille's history and culture demands they rise to the European occasion.

For Deschamps and his team, there would be no better time than against Arsenal on Wednesday.