Meetings between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain are often explosive and events of the last seven days add to the tension of Sunday’s latest clash of French football’s biggest rivals.
Marseille’s 67,000-capacity Velodrome will be empty for the game due to Covid-19 restrictions, but the Mediterranean city is still on edge after several hundred supporters attacked the club’s training ground last weekend.
The supporters were demonstrating against poor recent results as well as against the running of the club by president Jacques-Henri Eyraud.
Spanish defender Alvaro Gonzalez was reportedly struck on the back by a projectile as he went to confront the supporters, of whom 25 were arrested. Eight will go on trial later this month.
A crisis is only ever a couple of bad results away at the former Champions League winners, but this has been on another level, with the club’s American owner Frank McCourt likening the attack to the deadly January 6 assault on the US Congress.
Marseille’s game against Rennes last Saturday was postponed, and three days later coach Andre Villas-Boas was suspended by the club — the first step in the legal process of sacking the Portuguese — after he declared at a press conference he wanted to resign.
The former Porto, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur coach was angry that Celtic midfielder Olivier Ntcham had been signed on loan on transfer deadline day against his wishes.
Interim coach Nasser Larguet oversaw Wednesday’s 2-2 draw in Lens, and Marseille, runners-up last season, go into Sunday’s match having slumped to ninth in the table on a run of one win in 10 in all competitions.
It is hardly the ideal way to come into a meeting with PSG, even if the Qatar-owned side are still finding their feet under new coach Mauricio Pochettino.
A 3-2 loss at struggling Lorient last weekend saw Paris drop to third behind Lille and Lyon, but they bounced back to beat Nimes 3-0 in midweek.
That was achieved without Neymar, who was banned but returns here amid reports he has agreed to stay in Paris beyond the end of his existing deal in 2022.
“We will need to play this game as if it were the Champions League final,” declared Pochettino.
“This game means a lot for our players and our supporters. I am sad at what has happened in Marseille. I know Andre Villas-Boas well — we crossed paths at Tottenham — but you can never predict what will happen in a ‘Classique’.”
PSG beat Marseille 2-1 in the Champions Trophy last month, but OM won 1-0 in the last league meeting in Paris, a game marred by five late sendings-off.
Neymar was one of three PSG players dismissed, and the Brazilian later accused Marseille defender Alvaro of racism, although in the end no action was taken due to a lack of evidence.
Player to watch: Arkadiusz Milik
The Polish striker may have a big role to play if Marseille are to upset the odds against Paris. Milik signed from Napoli in January after being frozen out by the Italians in the first half of the season. But, after 34 goals in the previous two campaigns, there is no doubting his pedigree, and he got off the mark for his new club in the 2-2 draw at Lens.
100 – Sunday’s clash between Marseille and PSG will be the 100th meeting of the sides in all competitions. They first met in December 1971, with Marseille winning 4-2.
50 – His goal against Nimes in midweek was Angel di Maria’s 50th in Ligue 1 for PSG. He also has 63 assists in the league since signing from Manchester United in 2015.
6 – League leaders Lille are chasing a sixth straight win when they go to Nantes. Fourth-placed Monaco have already won six on the bounce before facing bottom side Nimes.
Fixtures (kick-offs GMT)
Lorient v Reims (1600), Lyon v Strasbourg (1800), Lens v Rennes (2000)
Brest v Bordeaux (1200), Montpellier v Dijon, Nice v Angers, Nimes v Monaco, Saint-Etienne v Metz (all 1400), Nantes v Lille (1600), Marseille v Paris Saint-Germain (2000)