Marseille (AFP) – A quarter of a century on from giving French football its crowning moment in Europe, Marseille are dreaming of continental glory once again.
But the club that won the inaugural Champions League in 1993 — still the only time the European Cup has been won by a French side — must first come through a Europa League semi-final against Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, with the first leg at the Velodrome on Thursday.
If Marseille can win before a sell-out crowd of more than 60,000 on Thursday night (kick-off 1905 GMT), it will set them up to finish the job in next week’s return and keep them on course to make a final that will be played in France, at the home of their bitter rivals Lyon.
Given that Atletico Madrid and Arsenal meet in the other semi-final, Marseille cannot be seen as favourites to lift the trophy.
Nevertheless, the rousing 5-2 win over RB Leipzig in the second leg of the quarter-final at the Velodrome confirmed that they are a club on the up again under Rudi Garcia.
The former Lille and Roma coach has spearheaded Marseille’s revival on the field since American tycoon Frank McCourt’s takeover of the club in late 2016.
McCourt immediately launched his ‘Champions Project’, aimed at getting the club back into Europe’s top club competition again as soon as possible.
They are currently locked in a fierce battle with Lyon and Monaco for two Champions League qualifying berths in Ligue 1 behind champions Paris Saint-Germain.
But with Florian Thauvin in the form of his life, Dimitri Payet at his best again and Brazil midfielder Luiz Gustavo proving an inspired signing, they could yet win the Europa League and, in the process, qualify for the Champions League anyway.
Asked at Wednesday’s pre-game press conference how he has approached the match with his players, Garcia said: “I am telling them to continue scoring goals but to stop conceding so many. We need to be more rigorous at certain periods in games.
“Tomorrow, we are at home, at the Velodrome, in front of a full stadium. The atmosphere will be the same as against Leipzig, but we must not forget there will be a second leg to come there.”
– ‘Take the next step’ –
Given PSG’s well documented difficulties in the Champions League, Marseille’s run has given French football a boost, a year after Lyon lost in the last four of the same competition.
This is OM’s first European semi-final since 2004, when Didier Drogba’s goals saw off Newcastle United in the UEFA Cup before they lost to Rafael Benitez’s Valencia in the final in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Marseille can be confident, even if Garcia has labelled his team simply “an outsider determined to reach the final”.
However, they will be without influential Japan right-back Hiroki Sakai due to a knee injury, and Salzburg’s run in Europe so far this season means they deserve respect.
On course to win a fifth consecutive Austrian title, Marco Rose’s Salzburg have already drawn with and beaten the French giants in the group stage.
This will be their 19th game in Europe this season, a run that started in the Champions League qualifying rounds and continued on to wins against Borussia Dortmund and Lazio in the last two rounds of the Europa League.
“We have come this far, so of course we want to take the next step to the final,” Israeli striker Munas Dabbur, who scored in the win over Lazio, told the club’s website.
“We face really strong opponents though, who have become even more dangerous in recent weeks.”
Coached by the Leipzig-born Rose, Salzburg are the first Austrian semi-finalists in a major UEFA club competition since Rapid Vienna lost to PSG in the 1996 Cup Winners’ Cup final.
That was the last time any French club won a European trophy.