Marseille faces two crucial matches in five days

Marseille coach Didier Deschamps needs to find a way to lift his players ahead of two crucial away matches in five days, starting with second-place Rennes in the French league and followed by Manchester United in the Champions League.

Defending champion Marseille’s morale took a hit after last Sunday’s 2-1 loss at home to French leader Lille. That left fourth-place Marseille trailing Lille and Rennes by four points.

Rennes, which is second on goal difference, hosts Marseille on Friday. Lille hosts Valenciennes on Sunday.

Deschamps knows his team has to improve and cut out the poor concentration that allowed Lille to control that match.

”I won’t hide from the truth, Lille were better than us,” Deschamps said.

Rennes defender Jean-Armel Kana-Biyik is doing his utmost to keep the pressure on Marseille.

”The pressure is not on us, it’s on Marseille,” Kana-Biyik said. ”Everyone’s expecting them (to win), which can be an advantage (for us).”

Kana-Biyik does not expect particularly entertaining match, given that neither team is high-scoring.

”When you look at the Marseille team you know that this is going to be a match for fighters,” he said.

Deschamps’ plans were further affected by striker Brandao having preliminary charges of rape filed against him Thursday. The Brazilian was released from custody pending further investigation but won’t play against Rennes.

”Obviously, all of this disrupts the squad. It’s not really ideal to prepare the difficult match awaiting us,” Deschamps said. ”I could gladly do without these kinds of problems.”

Rennes said on its website that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson will be watching the match at Stade de la Route de Lorient.

Marseille then visits United on Tuesday, with the score 0-0 from the first leg of their last-16 match in what is arguably the most difficult period in the club’s season.

Following the United match is a home game next Sunday against Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille’s main rival and an encounter that the former club captain Deschamps knows the fans simply will not accept losing.

While Rennes and Lille have a four-point lead, below them things are very tight.

Third-place Lyon is level on points with Marseille but ahead on goal difference, while PSG is only one point behind them in fifth.

None of the teams have any room to slip up, although Rennes and Lille will have the advantage of fresher players in the long run because they are not involved in European competition.

Lyon plays Real Madrid in the Champions League next Wednesday after a 1-1 draw in the home leg, while PSG is still involved in the Europa League.

Deschamps, whose own future is increasingly unclear amid reports in Italy linking him with the Juventus job next season, tried his best to play down the media interest surrounding Brandao’s arrest at his home on Tuesday.

”You could write books about Marseille, but let’s make sure our whole attention is on Rennes,” he said.

Brandao’s form this season has been erratic, with only one league goal in 19 games. But Deschamps likes him for his ability to hold the ball up and link with fellow forwards Andre Pierre Gignac and Loic Remy.

Lyon coach Claude Puel may be tempted to rest players ahead of Saturday’s trip to Sochaux, like he did before the first leg against Madrid when he provoked the fury of Argentine striker Lisandro Lopez by resting him.

But after Lopez’s hat trick against Arles-Avignon last weekend, Puel may think twice about doing so again.

Also Saturday, it’s: Arles-Avignon vs. Lorient; Lens vs. Toulouse; Nancy vs. Caen; Nice vs. Auxerre; and Saint-Etienne vs. Brest. On Sunday, Paris Saint-Germain hosts Montpellier and Bordeaux hosts Monaco.