It’s been painful for Marseille fans to watch bitter rival Paris Saint-Germain collect league titles over the last decade to become the most successful club in domestic French soccer.
For while Marseille still has bragging rights over PSG as the only French club to win the Champions League, it hasn’t won the domestic league title since 2010. PSG, meanwhile, has won it nine times in the last 11 years to set a French record with 11 titles.
Saint-Etienne has 10 and Marseille has been stuck on nine for more than a decade.
That’s an eternity for fans in the soccer-crazed southern seaport city who live and breathe the game every day. The passion at Stade Velodrome remains as strong as ever, in contrast to the somewhat lukewarm atmosphere at PSG’s Parc des Princes.
Marseille looked like title contenders at certain times last season, before once again being hampered by inconsistency: Marseille won eight straight away games but struggled badly at home under former coach Igor Tudor. His brand of disciplined soccer was suited to counter-attacking away from home but too rigid when needing to break down visiting teams sitting deep. And Tudor did not fully trust ageing playmaker Dimitri Payet, often leaving him on the bench.
Typical offseason upheaval followed with another coaching change as Spanish manager Marcelino came in to replace Tudor, and the 36-year-old Payet breaking down in tears upon learning he was surplus to requirements at the club where he scored 78 goals and provided 82 assists.
But the arrival of prolific striker Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang and goal-scoring winger Ismaila Sarr to join Alexis Sanchez in attack should give those fans hope for a competitive season.
The 34-year-old Aubameyang has over 300 club goals, including prolific spells at Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, before unsuccessful stints at Barcelona and Chelsea.
“I want to win trophies here,” Aubameyang said. “I must set the example. I’m not going to scream at people but I’ll show it on the field through my efforts. Alexis Sanchez had a great season, now I must do the same.”
The Gabon striker is also very familiar with the French league, having scored freely for Saint-Etienne before joining Dortmund in 2013. Sarr joins after four seasons with English club Watford, including two in the Premier League — where the speedy Senegal forward caught the eye with his skill and dribbling.
Sarr is joined this season by countryman Iliman Ndiaye. The attacking midfielder played for Marseille as a junior and made his mark last season with 14 league goals and 11 assists for Sheffield United in England’s second-tier Championship.
They could form a mouth-watering quartet in attack if Marseille manages to retain Sanchez. The veteran Chile forward won the fans over with his goals and hard-working approach, which is no mean feat considering how notoriously impatient Marseille’s hugely demanding supporters are.
While they revered managers Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli for their attacking approach, they jeered Tudor during preseason games last year. They eventually respected his methods as Marseille battled to third place and a spot in the Champions League qualifying rounds.
Marseille has also been unstable at management level, with both Bielsa and Sampaoli suddenly quitting after disagreements and former coach André Villas-Boas suspended after publicly criticizing the club.
They were bigger names than Marcelino. But in his previous stint with Spanish club Athletic Bilbao, Marcelino reached two Spanish Cup finals and won the Spanish Super Cup by beating Real Madrid and Barcelona.
One of Marcelino’s first tasks will be choosing which Spaniard to start as goalkeeper for the home game against Reims on Saturday, although Pau Lopez is likely to start ahead of Ruben Blanco.
Center back Chancel Mbemba was the rock in Marseille’s defense and Geoffrey Kondogbia’s arrival from Atletico Madrid boosts a solid midfield already boasting France midfielders Jordan Veretout and Matteo Guendouzi.
Kondogbia won the Spanish Cup in 2019 when Marcelino coached him at Valencia.
“This will help me to adapt. I know his methods and what he looks for on and off the field,” said Kondogbia, who has also played for Inter Milan. “Marseille has been ambitious in terms of recruitment and mentality. With (president) C’est Pablo Longoria, I knew things would move quickly on that front.”
So Marcelino clearly has a squad strong enough to be competitive and, should PSG start poorly without Lionel Messi and possibly Kylian Mbappe, then this could be Marseille’s chance to end its barren run.
Whether Marseille’s fans are patient enough to give him time to put his system into place is another question.
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The Associated Press