Marseille begin their 2017/18 Europa League campaign with real optimism having recently acquired many household names within French Football. However, this hype could soon turn sour if Les Olympiens fail to overcome their potential banana skin 3rd round qualifying tie against neighbouring Belgian club KV Oostende.
Although in a geographical sense it is undoubtedly a kind draw, KV Oostende contain some players which avid football fans would recognise having finished 4th in last season’s Pro League, incidentally their best ever finish. Although this will be Rudi Garcia’s first full season in charge at Stade Vélodrome, the pressure will mount from the very beginning, as missing out on the Europa League group stages is simply an unthinkable prospect.
The Europa League is a competition which has followed a similar trajectory to OM of late. The competition’s famous Thursday night football, sometimes played at far European outposts gave the trophy a bleak, comedic and uninteresting reputation for some time. The same can be said of Marseille, who have been aimlessly drifting in the doldrums for far too long for a club of their magnitude, trophy-less since 2011/12.
Yet, times are changing. Winning the Europa League now gives access to the all important UEFA Champions League, which has thankfully increased the standard and the intensity of the competition leaps and bounds. We are now in an era where reaching the UEFA Champions League through domestic league positions is increasingly difficult each season, and therefore top clubs have spotted this new pathway. None more so than Manchester United, who charged their way through relatively mediocre opposition in last season’s Europa League, and have thus now entered this year’s Champions League.
Similarly to the Europa League, Marseille feel rejuvenated following last October’s ownership change. The man behind the money, American Frank McCourt, wasted no time with the appointment of Rudi Garcia only three days after he officially walked through the door himself. The prime reason behind the refreshed feel surrounding the club is surely the influx of notable players who have arrived in the past 10 months. Dimitri Payet, Florian Thauvin, Luis Gustavo, Patrice Evra, Valère Germain, Steve Mandanda and Adil Rami are just some of those admirable arrivals.
Expectations are high, and such experienced names should figure frequently should Marseille advance to latter stages of the tournament. Contrastingly, Oostende are struggling to hold on to some of last season’s success stories, with striker Lamine Dimata and right-back Adam Marusic joining VFL Wolfsburg & AS Lazio respectively. Despite this, some acquisitions have been made. 39 times capped Belgian centre half Nicolas Lombaerts joined on a free from Zenit alongside Richairo Zivkovic, a man once dubbed as having world class potential. It won’t be an easy hurdle for Marseille up against a confident Oostende side.
KV Oostende have been experimenting with starting XI’s as is custom for many teams in pre-season by rotating their whole squad at half-time. The squad currently boasts a bill of clean health which is very useful for their first ever Europa League at such an intimidating venue. Two men who won’t be worried about visiting the Stade Vélodrome will be likely centre back duo Nicolas Lombaert and former PSG man David Rozenthal, a towering, experienced pairing at the back. If the Belgians can forget their formidable surroundings, they will look to inflict fast, free-flowing football on the flanks through Zimbabwean Knowledge Musona and speedster Zivkovic. Oostende fans were recently delighted that South African midfielder Andile Jali signed a new deal with the club, and he will look to hold the midfield as the pacy wingers look to inflict damage. Oostende’s African contingent will likely be joined in the starting XI by popular Nigerian frontman Joseph Akpala, who enjoyed a fruitful campaign last season.
Marseille will have no injury excuses either, with Rudi Garcia having the luxury of an almost fully fit squad. The backline will remain familiar, with the experienced Evra, Rolando and Rami all likely to feature in order to implement a professional mentality to the two-legged tie. The club should be complimented for the fact that they have replaced central midfielders Lassana Diarra and departing loanee William Vainqueur with the signing of composed Brazilian Luiz Gustavo. The decision not to renew Bafétimbi Gomis’ loan deal will not have bothered Marseille fans too much either due to the credible capture of Valère Germain from AS Monaco.
Marseille have produced promising performances during pre-season, beating the likes of Sporting, which will only feed positivity in preparation for the tie. A strong side is likely, with the mouthwatering combination of Dimitri Payet and Florian Thauvin on the flanks looking to cause carnage.
Morgan Sanson will look to build on his consistently impressive last season by starring ahead of Gustavo, providing ammunition for the forwards. What domestic French sides often struggle with is a lack of strength in depth. Yet, Marseille fans will be suitably impressed with the likes of Clinton N’Jie, Remy Cabella, Lucas Ocampos and Bouna Sarr all beginning to frame a squad which could hopefully seriously challenge for honours this season.
Dimitri Payet, Olympique de Marseille
Perhaps the very trailblazer for Marseille’s exciting new direction, Payet is unquestionably one of the most talented players in French football at present. It is often forgotten that at this time last summer Payet will have been absolutely devastated. His emotional celebrations after scoring the winner at the hands of Romania at Euro 2016 showed how much representing his country meant to the man born in Reunion. The extra-time loss in the final of the tournament must have hit the then Hammer hard, especially as consistent international football was a relatively new delicacy for the 30-year-old.
A return to West Ham never did seem right at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, and a period of homesickness revealed deeper issues which were troubling Payet’s time in London. Subsequently, Payet was finally allowed to return to Les Olympiens much to the dismay of West Ham supporters, and we are of the belief that having had a full pre-season under his belt, Payet could produce his best season yet.
A fresh, settled season alongside the abundance of new talent at the club are signs that the dazzling winger could carry Marseille in a similar way that he carried West Ham on many occasions. One of the finest free kick takers in Europe is another treacherous trait he possesses, which could become crucial during a tense two-legged tie such as this one.
Richairo Zivkovic – KV Oostende
Zivkovic is a typically troublesome winger who despite still being very raw, is a danger due to his unpredictability. At times, you can see why that the former Groningen man was compared so heavily to Arjen Robben during his youth days, wielding deadly turn of pace. Indeed, viral videos of Zivkovic’s running near Olympic time to score for FC Utrecht made worldwide headlines in his side’s 3-1 victory against FC Twente. A product of the famous Ajax academy, Zivkovic had high expectations, once being linked with giants such as Real Madrid and Barcelona.
An unsuccessful loan spell at Willem II unfortunately slightly derailed his progress, but luckily his latest period at FC Utrecht saw his potential realised, notching an impressive 11 goals in 34 games. Having only joined Oostende earlier on in the summer, Zivkovic will be looking to further demonstrate his talent, and what better stage than a vital Europa League tie at the Stade Velodrome to showcase his talents. If Zivkovic has studied the Marseille side in depth, he will have surely noticed that speed is an asset of his that many of the generally older Marseille defenders simply don’t have it in their locker to combat, and may well seek to exploit this.
Marseille 3-1 KV Oostende