IF Didier Deschamps wanted to use Olympique Marseille’s Champions League opener against Olympiacos to quash suggestions of an impending crisis at the Stade Velodrome, then he will take few positives from his team’s 1-0 win against the Greek champions.
Marseille arrived in Athens eager to seek respite from the barrage of criticism they have received for their poor domestic form which has left them without a win in Ligue 1 after five rounds, and for 52 minutes, the criticism seemed just.
Olympiacos also went into the game without a win – without a game even. With the fixture list of the first two rounds of the delayed Greek Super League pitting them against demoted clubs involved in the recent bribery scandal, coach Ernesto Valverde had been reliant on friendly fixtures to prime his team for their European campaign.
The Greek side showed ring rust early on after they were let off from Diarra’s unchallenged header from inside the six-yard box, but quickly settled with their front three looking to slip through the Marseille defence, which began to show naiveties of their own, when Kevin Mirallas, the focal point of Olympiacos attack, was freely allowed a clean strike on goal on 19 minutes.
Without the ball Olympiacos seemed to take on the role of an away team. Sitting back and allowing Marseille to gain ground, Olympiacos extinguished any threat from the visitors with relative ease. Summer arrivals Jérémy Morel and Morgan Amalfitano, taking up wide midfield births to support feed lone striker Loic Rémy, looked static and stifled leaving Marseille overly reliant on Lucho González and Benoit Cheyrou’s driving runs from midfield to ignite the team in the final third. Rémy largely unsupported and anonymous for much of the game, did have Marseille’s best attempt of the first-half and saw his shot strike the post. Almost immediately, his opposite, Mirallas again sparked into life, spinning his way past two Marseille defenders and turning a third before Steve Mandanda was forced into a routine save.
Seven minutes into the second half, Jérémy Morel broke a habit of the match so far to get past right-back Vasilis Torosidis to feed a low cross into the path of Lucho González, leaving the Argentine to finish from close-range.
Chasing the game in front of a sell-out crowd at the Georgios Karaiskáki stadium, Olympiacos let drop their guard, becoming less restrictive as the game wore on. Deschamps saw his team revert back to offering little offensively, replacing Loic Rémy with Jordan Ayew, to breath new life into the Marseilie attack. Seeing little opportunity in adding a second goal to starve off any Olympiacos threat, Deschamps sought a cautious approach for the final quarter of an hour, withdrawing the defensively frail Gonzalez and reinforcing the Marseille midfield with the more laborious Charles Kabore. The move encouraged the Greek side to build and gain attacking momentum but Olympiacos’ lack of physicality in the Marseille area left Steve Mandanda facing more attempts from outside the box rather than in it. The injury time dismissal of defender Rod Fanni for an overly competitive challenge was too late to handicap a Marseille side, who were then within touching distance of their first win.
Against a more robust forward line, L’OM could’ve easily seen yet another lead turn into a draw or worse, and the victory will do little to lift confidence of the team’s wide players who were easily overcome and starved lone-forwards Rémy and later, Jordan Ayew, of service.
The points may be in the bag after Matchday One in the Champions League but with the daunting prospect of a visit to undefeated Olympique Lyon on Sunday, the pressure has far from lifted on Didier Deschamps, who now arguably faces the biggest challenge in his two seasons at the club.
This article first appeared on www.frenchfootballweekly.com