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Marseille a Long Way from Greatness as They Await Dimitri Payet's Return

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2017

Marseille, in the image of the grounded Florian Thauvin, struggled to cope with an accomplished Monaco side at the weekend.
Marseille, in the image of the grounded Florian Thauvin, struggled to cope with an accomplished Monaco side at the weekend.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

For a few weeks, it has felt like something is happening on La Canebiere, the bustling main street that runs through the centre of Marseille. That tends to be the way in a city whose mood is directly impacted by the fortunes of Olympique de Marseille.

It has not been an easy few years for the clubwhich has fallen from Ligue 1 title, and even Champions League place, contentionor its fanatical fans, who have seen a string of their best players walk out the door.

Yet they are finally at a new dawn after U.S. businessman Frank McCourt completed his purchase of OM in October and almost immediately appointed the vaunted and charismatic Rudi Garcia as coach.

Despite the limited squad at his disposal, Garcia's impact has been considerable. The former Lille OSC and AS Roma boss is not just a fine organiser of teams, but a man who gets inside his players' heads. He presents them with a philosophy and belief with which to self-improve and serve the group.

The coach and his players have used November's 4-0 humiliation at AS Monaco—a historic rival, both in sport and geography, but looked down on by many OM fans for not generating anything like the same passion as they do—as a springboard to improvement.

Garcia's side have regrouped in the seven games since. The only match they lost in that run was in the Coupe de la Ligue, to Sochaux, and even that was on penalties.

They only conceded four goals in that run, too, hinting at a newfound resolve. As they welcomed Monaco to a virtually sold-out Stade Velodrome on Sunday evening, it felt as if Marseille could be about to make their presence felt as a force in the French game once again.

Sometimes, however, desire just isn't enough. Despite the headline of Sunday morning's L'Equipe ("L'OM n'pas oublie," meaning OM haven't forgotten, with reference to that first match in the principality), Garcia's fired-up players were powerless to prevent a near-repeat by Leonardo Jardim's side. In every area that mattered—organisation, individual quality, collective complementarity—Monaco were streets ahead.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say Monaco are streets ahead. They are the team most likely to deprive Paris Saint-Germain of a fifth successive Ligue 1 crown, and OM are unlikely to catch them up any time soon, despite McCourt's apparent willingness to invest in the squad.

Frank McCourt, pictured next to former owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, has pledged to invest heavily to make OM challengers again.
Frank McCourt, pictured next to former owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, has pledged to invest heavily to make OM challengers again.Claude Paris/Associated Press/Associated Press

The American's strapline on arrival in France as he prepared to complete his purchase of the club was of his "OM Champions Project," as reported by Orange Sports (in French), which he said would make the club a title contender every year.

With the distance between their club and the likes of Monaco, PSG and even OGC Nice yawning before their supporters' eyes, that strapline has constantly been repeated by fans and media, with varying levels of disdain, delight and exasperation, depending on the loyalties of the person re-uttering it.

What will create hope, of course, are signings, with nights like Sunday reaffirming the sense that Garcia has been doing the job with one hand behind his back until the opening of the winter window.

The will to give him what he needs is there. Immediately after completing his takeover, McCourt gave a lengthy interview to L'Equipe (h/t 20minutes.fr, in French) in which he promised to invest "at least €200 million" in the first four years of his time at the club.

The most headline-making step into a new era of becoming a buyer, not a seller, has been the effort made to bring West Ham United's Dimitri Payet back to the Velodrome. He would be the ultimate symbol of ambition from McCourt's OM—a much-loved former player who is at the peak of his powers.

The re-signing of Dimitri Payet (centre), pictured in his first spell at the club with André-Pierre Gignac (left), would be a huge statement of intent from the new regime.
The re-signing of Dimitri Payet (centre), pictured in his first spell at the club with André-Pierre Gignac (left), would be a huge statement of intent from the new regime.Claude Paris/Associated Press/Associated Press

In his second and final season at the club, Payet was electrifying under the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa after being moved inside into a central role.

What made his impact even more edifying for the club's support was that he had battled to be there. OM were keen to sell him to Swansea City in the summer of 2014 to ease cashflow problemsa move that never tickled his fancy, as he explained at the time to L'Equipe (h/t Sky Sports' Patrick Haond), and despite the fact it would have given him a pay rise. Payet fought hard to stay at OM and to be the best there.

It's not hard to see why the OM of today would appeal to him, as the club aims to be nearer to what it should be, rather than what it was when he left. Payet is fired by ambition more than money, which is what inspired his other strikewhile an AS Saint-Etienne player trying to force a move to PSGin the corresponding window six years ago.

The move didn't happen. After going AWOL to journey to Paris and try to make it happen, Payet eventually returned, restarted training and apologised to his team-mates. "Dimitri's a honest boy," his Saint-Etienne coach, Christophe Galtier, told L'Equipe last week (h/t RMC Sport, in French). "He's not a crook."

That heart-on-sleeve passion is what OM fans want. Any deal for Payet is to be done with the two clubs a long way apart on the fee and West Ham "insulted" by the French club's most recent offer, according to the Telegraph's Jason Burt. Yet many more than just Payet are needed to make Marseille truly great again, as Sunday night showed.

McCourt's €200 million investment sounds good, but what does it really mean? Is that just the figure that is available for the transfer fees of signings, as many have taken it to mean? Is it supposed to cover purchase prices, signing-on fees and wages? Or does the figure include improving the club's facilities, infrastructure and investing in the local community?

It's all a bit muddy, but even iffor argument's sakewe take it to mean the budget just for buying players, there's not much chance of €50 million a year being enough to have Marseille overhaul PSG at the summit of the domestic game, let alone become a Champions League regular. Most of the kitty for the year would probably go on Payet.

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For many fans, that would still be enough for now. What is wanted is progress and direction, not hot air and nostalgia. That's why a banner was unfurled at the Monaco game directed at Didier Drogba (see above), inviting him to go to China rather than come back as a swan song and, as some of those fans see it, just for a payday.

There is rarely patience present in the Velodrome stands. Those fans, as well as those who hope for a more open Ligue 1, will hope that McCourt's willingness to spend on personnel matches Garcia's vision, and that Payet is the tip of a glorious iceberg rather than a placebo.

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