After 25 years, Marseille looking to win in Europe again
PARIS (AP) After a 25-year wait, Marseille has a chance to win another European trophy.
The French club, which won the inaugural Champions League title, will face Atletico Madrid on Wednesday in the Europa League final. Both the title and a spot in next season’s Champions League will be on the line in Lyon.
Marseille is the only French club to have won the Champions League, and the players are constantly reminded of that night in 1993 when Marseille beat AC Milan 1-0 on a header from defender Basile Boli.
”When you arrive here at the club,” Marseille defender Rolando said, ”the first thing you see is (a photo of) Boli’s header.”
Marseille loves to taunt French rival Paris Saint-Germain about the fact that the capital club has never won the Champions League, but it is becoming a tiring refrain. The time to stop harping on about past glory and deliver another trophy has come, especially after a pair of UEFA Cup final losses in 1999 and 2004.
There is added significance for Marseille in regard to the venue.
Players from Lyon and Marseille fought during a league game this season and the club presidents have traded heated barbs. And with one match to go in the French season, Marseille trails third-place Lyon by one point with only the top three headed to the Champions League.
Animosity between the fans dates back to 2013, when 17 were injured during a violent altercation at a motorway gas station. Lyon’s hooligan fringe has been active in European matches for several seasons, and police will be on alert for potential clashes with Marseille’s feisty ultras in the city.
Stephane Bouillon, the top state representative in the Lyon area, said Monday that exceptional security measures will be implemented for the game, with 1,250 police officers deployed. In addition, a helicopter and two vehicles equipped with water cannons will be patrolling the area.
Marseille players have been urging their fans to refrain from vandalism inside the stadium.
”I hope it stays within the boundaries of football and there isn’t any damage,” Marseille defender Adil Rami said. ”I hope we’re all intelligent enough not to ruin this party.”
Marseille last reached a European final 14 years ago – in the UEFA Cup – but Atletico has enjoyed a far stronger European presence in recent times. This decade alone, Atletico has twice won the Europa League – previously the UEFA Cup – and twice reached the Champions League final.
”This team has the character and personality needed to win,” Atletico midfielder Gabi Fernandez said. ”The only thing we have in mind is winning.”
While coach Diego Simeone’s side will be favored, Marseille counterpart Rudi Garcia has instilled a steely resolve in his players. That was evident in the semifinal win over Austrian club Salzburg, when Rolando scored the decisive goal deep in injury time.
”Since the start of the campaign, Garcia has said we’re going all the way,” Rolando said. ”Even though we had to get through the playoffs, he still said `No, no. We will get there. Get that inside your heads.’ He was right.”
Garcia cleverly used the Europa League to get fringe players more involved, convincing them to think of themselves as important members of the squad.
”That’s our strength: everyone feels important,” Marseille midfielder Morgan Sanson said. ”He’s proved to everyone that this works.”
Sanson and diminutive midfield partner Maxime Lopez form a skillful fulcrum in the middle. They forced their way into the side via the long Europa League campaign – this will be Marseille’s 19th European game of the season and 62nd overall.
The 20-year-old Lopez is a product of Marseille’s flourishing youth academy. When Marseille lost to Bayern Munich in the 2010 Champions League quarterfinals, Lopez was a club ball boy. He is a Marseille local fulfilling his dream to wear the jersey.
”If we win, I’m going to dye my hair blue,” Lopez said. ”I wasn’t even born in 1993. My father was there, and still to this day he tells me what it was like. It will be a dream if we can repeat this. We know the fervor in Marseille. It’s a question of pride for me, my family and the whole city.”
Motivation is one thing, but getting past Atletico’s defense is quite another. And so is keeping Atletico’s strike force quiet.
Rami, who won the Europa League with Sevilla in 2016, knows what to expect from Costa.
”I’ve played a few times against him and it’s always been a good scrap,” Rami said. ”I’ll try to be ready for this combat.”
Atletico’s defense also faces a tough time stopping Marseille winger Florian Thauvin, who has 26 goals in all competitions. He forms a strong partnership with attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet, the French league’s best passer this season along with Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar.
Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire