Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Fallen giants Marseille make Arsenal's problems look puny: 15th in the table, huge debts and they aren't even safe in their beds!

Arsenal fans may be feeling a little sorry for themselves this season – but Gooners should have a look at the fortunes of fallen French giants Marseille, tonight’s Champions League opponents.

The only French club ever to win the European Cup – they did it in 1992-93 when the controversial Bernard Tapie was in charge – are making Arsene Wenger’s problems look puny.

We could start with plain old domestic form. In England, Arsenal are currently 10th, just back in the top half of the Premier League, after their Robin van Persie-inspired 2-1 win over Sunderland last weekend.

Olympique de Marseille? In the far weaker Ligue 1, they could only manage a goalless draw at Toulouse where midfielder Charles Kabore was sent off on Saturday night. That left France’s World Cup-winning captain Didier Deschamps and his troubled troops 15th after 10 matches, 14 points behind table-topping Paris St Germain, with just one win to their credit this autumn.

While Arsenal’s board proclaim loud support for Wenger, Marseille’s owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus complains: “The team aren't playing like they should given all the money that I've put in, if I was a true businesswoman, I would have already sold the club.”

And after the latest crisis meeting at the Velodrome, Marseille defender Rod Fanni wasn’t fannying about. He said simply: “Our team is unwell. It's difficult to explain but without doubt, it's a confidence problem."

And it doesn’t end there for the footballing respresentatives of the second largest city in France. How about this for a unique problem: over the past two years, 10 of their players have suffered “home jacking” in the Mediterranean port famously plagued by crime.

In July, Brazilian defender Vitorino Hilton was at his “security-gated” home with 10 family members when an armed gang of six broke in just before midnight. They held the footballer's relatives hostage before hitting Hilton on the head several times with a gun and escaping with “cash, jewellery, computers and designer bags”.

Hilton, who has subsequently moved to Montpellier, said: "As I'd been hit on the head, I was bleeding a lot, my children panicked. They wanted to go back to Brazil.”

In March, Marseille’s big-name Argentinian midfielder Lucho González was left traumatised after an armed gang attacked him and his family at home in neighbouring Aix-en-Provence. In a bid to protect their players – and ensure potential new signings won’t be put off by the local criminal gangs – Marseille have had to set up private security patrols around players' homes.

Not that they can afford it. Last Friday the club declared a £13.5m (R150m) loss for the previous financial year. Though penny-pinching Arsene Wenger hasn’t won a trophy since Patrick Vieira’s penalty won the 2005 FA Cup, Deschamps managed to break his club’s 17-year trophy drought – reaching all the way back to that subsequently discredited Champions League triumph – in 2010 with a Ligue 1 title.

But since then Deschamps has been involved in an ongoing war with sporting director Jose Anigo and the fans, who believe the former French “water carrier” as he was once described by Eric Cantona, is too negative.

This year they are managing about a goal a game as they struggle for survival, let alone a place in the European qualifying spots.

Though Wenger may covet strikers Loic Remy and Andre Ayew, Marseille’s dynamic duo, he will be aware that Deschamps’ record signing last season - Andre-Pierre Gignac – was forced to attend a pre-season “fat-camp” in Italy and was nearly consigned to Fulham on loan in January.

Ironic then, that Wenger and Arsenal arrive at the Velodrome intent on snuffing out the one speck of light in Marseille’s tunnel of doom – the Champions League. While their domestic form has been decidedly dodgy, Olympiakos and the heavily-fancied Borussia Dortmund have both been beaten in Group F with Ayew – son of the great Abedi Pele – scoring twice in their emphatic 3-0 win over the Germans.

I’ve been to the Velodrome four times to watch both football and rugby. It’s an intimidating venue in an intimidating city. Largely uncovered and still boasting that unique cycle-track shape, the 60,000 capacity is currently limited to 42,000 loud Marseillais during renovations. But it’s not an easy place to go as Manchester United found out last season when they were held 0-0 there in the round of 16.

Wenger says: "Marseille are a good team but they are under pressure a little bit like we are in the league because they didn't start as strong as they would have expected.

"That puts more pressure on you. They have done well in the Champions League, certainly, because it is a competition where there is a bit less expectation and they are less under pressure."

And Wenger, like Deschamps, knows all about pressure.

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