Ligue 1

Key Battles That Will Shape Paris Saint-Germain's Clash with Marseille

Jonathan JohnsonFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2014

Key Battles That Will Shape Paris Saint-Germain's Clash with Marseille

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    Paris Saint-Germain host bitter rivals Olympique de Marseille at the Parc des Princes on Sunday in “Le Classique.” The fixture is traditionally the most important in the domestic French footballing calendar but, since the rise of AS Monaco, its importance has waned.

    Supporters of both sides will still turn out in their numbers to watch the encounter, although travelling fans in this clash have been limited to 400 for each club in recent years in a bid to curb the violence that surrounds this game.

    For the first time in its history, one of the two teams will enter “Le Classique” 18 points worse off than the other, the largest margin between the pair prior to one of these fixtures.

    Marseille have struggled this season, despite a number of talented additions to the squad at the start of the campaign. PSG, on the other hand, have pulled clear at the top of the table, sitting five points clear of second-placed title rivals Monaco.

    OM were expected to challenge the pair for the Ligue 1 title but instead Jose Anigo’s side are now sweating on UEFA Champions League qualification.

    PSG could open up an eight-point lead at the top of Le Championnat, depending on the result of Monaco’s clash with Saint-Etienne on Saturday, but Marseille cannot afford to lose any further ground as they seek to re-capture third spot.

    “Le Classique” is unfortunately renowned more often than not for what happens off the pitch thanks to a history of violence between supporters. On the pitch though, there are a number of mouth-watering tactical battles that will take place and shape this encounter. 

    Here are some of the key battles that could decide the result of this clash.

     

    *All statistics included are thanks to Ligue1.com.

Thiago Motta vs. Alaixys Romao

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    Two very different types of holding midfielders anchor PSG and Marseille’s midfields. Thiago Motta is a metronomic presence for Laurent Blanc’s men, while Alaixys Romao is a menacing physical presence for Les Phoceens. 

    Both will be crucial to their teams’ chances of winning Sunday’s clash as the Parisians’ domination of the game will depend on their ability to win this midfield battle. Motta will be key to PSG’s possession-based game, as always, while Romao will be the one responsible for destroying it. 

    Aided by the likes of Giannelli Imbula, the Togolese international will arguably have more luck breaking up PSG’s domination of the ball alongside another destroyer than he will as the deepest-lying of a midfield diamond with Andre Ayew and Dimitri Payet on either side. 

    If Jose Anigo can get his midfield selection right and unsettle the French champions’ stellar trio of Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, then OM can perhaps escape from the capital with a win.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Andre-Pierre Gignac

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    “Le Classique” pits two of Ligue 1’s leading marksmen against each other, although both have very different styles of play. 

    PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic is in incredible form so far this season and has 22 goals as well as nine assists to his name, a league-leading best in both categories. Marseille’s predatory striker Andre-Pierre Gignac is less of an all-rounder, but he still boasts a respectable 12 goals. 

    The chunky French international is OM’s main goal threat and has been in good form recently, with three goals in his last six league appearances. However, he is less of a provider.

    It is unclear, at present, whether or not Edinson Cavani will be fit enough to start Sunday’s crunch match or whether he will have to be content with a place on the PSG bench instead. 

    Should he be deemed fit to play from kick-off, then Ibrahimovic will be required to indulge his creative side a little more than he has been used to since El Matador limped off injured against Girondins de Bordeaux.

    The Swede has been in insatiable form lately, now just eight goals shy of equalling last season’s 30-goal haul and just four short of doubling Cavani’s 13-goal total so far. 

    Ibrahimovic can become the top scorer in the history of “Le Classique” if he scores just once on Sunday, as he will overtake PSG legend Pedro Miguel Pauleta’s record of six goals in 11 matches. The Swede will have taken just five games to better that record.

Marco Verratti vs. Mathieu Valbuena

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    Aside from the battle between Thiago Motta and Alaixys Romao for supremacy in the midfield, Marco Verratti’s battle with Mathieu Valbuena is an intriguing tactical matchup. 

    The diminutive Italian international is in superlative form so far this season and has provided four direct assists, while playing an important role in the build-up to many other PSG goals. Valbuena, normally Marseille’s most creative player, has scored twice as well as laying on five assists.

    Verratti and Valbuena both play in different positions though, with the Frenchman based further forward than the combative Azzurri star. Which of the defensive midfielders wins the battle for control in the middle of the park will determine which of these two creative talents will come to the fore on Sunday.

Thiago Silva vs. Nicolas N'koulou

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    Francois Mori/Associated Press

    On paper, PSG’s Thiago Silva looks as if he will have a far more straightforward task in shackling Marseille’s Andre-Pierre Gignac than Nicolas N'Koulou will do up against the potential dual threat of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani. 

    OM’s star man will be confident that he can pose the Brazilian international some problems though, particularly in the air.

    PSG’s defensive record this season is worse than last year’s by one goal, although it is still the second best in Le Championnat at this point. However, an aerial weakness, particularly one from set pieces has been exposed in the PSG back line since the start of 2014. 

    While N'Koulou is likely going to be powerless to stop Ibrahimovic and possibly Cavani if played in a back three alongside Souleymane Diawara and Lucas Mendes, OM are going to be looking to expose Silva to Gignac’s aerial prowess with plenty of high balls from wide.

Gregory Van Der Wiel vs. Rod Fanni

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    Key to preventing Marseille from feeding Andre-Pierre Gignac will be ensuring that all potentially susceptible areas are covered. 

    Gregory van der Wiel’s marauding runs from right-back are a key feature of Laurent Blanc’s 4-3-3 formation, but the Dutch international also leaves plenty of space open at the back. Jose Anigo will have told his attacking players to focus on this area in the build-up to attacks. 

    If van der Wiel can maximise his excellent stamina and remain responsible at the back, while not losing any of his effectiveness going forward, then he can win that battle. Then it will be up to PSG’s wide threats of the in-form Ezequiel Lavezzi and Brazilian Lucas Moura to expose OM on the flanks. 

    Rod Fanni is in a similar position to van der Wiel in that his position will have been pinpointed as one for PSG to exploit by Blanc because of his tendency to push forward, although Jeremy Morel at left-back is a bigger cause for concern in the Marseille ranks.

    Whichever of van der Wiel and Fanni can remain more responsible at the back, while also contributing at the other end, will make a big difference on the outcome of the game.

Salvatore Sirigu vs. Steve Mandanda

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    In recent weeks PSG goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu has come in for criticism, while Marseille captain and net minder Steve Mandanda is also know to have his moments. 

    Both are capable of producing match-winning saves though and can make a big difference from between the sticks.

    Just last week, Sirigu proved that he can make a key contribution at vital moments in games by saving excellently from Toulouse’s Serge Aurier at 2-1 in the French champions’ eventual 4-2 victory. 

    Mandanda will likely be the busiest of the pair, but PSG will need Sirigu to be on form when Marseille do get their chances. That is particularly true of set plays, where the Italian is often exposed because of his limited aerial ability.

Edinson Cavani to Make the Telling Difference?

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    Francisco Seco/Associated Press

    The potential return of Edinson Cavani could prove to be the match-winning difference between the two sides come Sunday. 

    Although the Uruguayan international is not certain to start, Laurent Blanc’s ability to bring the 27-year-old off the bench if necessary could prove to be vital. El Matador can play alongside or replace Ibrahimovic, possibly adding more firepower up top if PSG are struggling.

    Cavani will want to reassert his claims to a starting role immediately, having missed over a month of action with a hamstring problem.

    What better way to mark your return to first team action than with a goal against your bitter rivals?

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