Marseille Take 2-0 Lead over Red Bull Salzburg in 2018 Europa League Semi-Final

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistApril 26, 2018

Marseille's Clinton N'Jie, center, celebrates with team mates after scoring his side's second goal during the Europa League semifinal first leg soccer match between Olympique Marseille and RB Salzburg at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille, France, Thursday, April 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Thibault Camus/Associated Press

Marseille are on course to seal their spot in this year's UEFA Europa League final after beating Red Bull Salzburg 2-0 at the Stade Velodrome on Thursday evening. 

Florian Thauvin continued his terrific season in front of goal and scored the opener from a Dimitri Payet free-kick, with Clinton N'Jie coming off the bench to double their advantage in the second half.

Despite the advantage, Marseille would be wise not to allow complacency to set into their game considering they've already lost at the Red Bull Arena this term ahead of next Thursday's second leg.

Arsenal drew 1-1 at home to 10-man Atletico Madrid in Thursday's other Europa League semi-final and Los Rojiblancos will be hopeful of turning the tie in their favour at the Wanda Metropolitano next Thursday.


Punchy Payet, Talismanic Thauvin

In times of need, Marseille have been able to look to the mercurial pairing of Dimitri Payet and Thauvin as their inspiration and sources of attacking flair, and the script was no different on Thursday evening.

Except Payet and Thauvin didn't wait for desperation to set in and took only 15 minutes to team up for the breakthrough, the latter heading in from a set piece as their blossoming partnership thrived, per OptaJean:

OptaJean @OptaJean

5 - OM players with the most assists for Florian Thauvin in L1 + Europa League this season: Dimitri Payet - 5 assists 🎯 Amavi, Sanson, Germain, Luiz Gustavo, Ocampos (+ 5 others) - 1 🎯 Bromance. https://t.co/Ab4O9JbK2w

After already recording a new career-best 15 goals last season, Thauvin, 25, has taken his game to new heights again in 2017-18, and the Europa League hailed his growing impact under coach Rudi Garcia:

UEFA Europa League @EuropaLeague

Thauvin has been directly involved in 34 goals this season (12 assists) 🔥 #UEL https://t.co/817jn704kO

But Payet was the star of the night and pulled the strings as chief puppeteer, dazzling Manchester City full-back Benjamin Mendy and international compatriot Benjamin Mendy with his delivery for Thauvin's first:

Benjamin Mendy @benmendy23

Payet 😳

The former West Ham United winger was instrumental in setting up N'Jie for Marseille's second, too, as the captain again found himself at the core of his side's machinations:

UEFA Europa League @EuropaLeague

Finisher and creator 🎯 Payet's 16th assist in 36 starts 👏 #UEL https://t.co/or9LVTZtQu

It's these kinds of talents Salzburg are missing, and it's at this stage of the competition that may begin to show.

Despite having the majority of chances at goal on Thursday, per WhoScored.com, Fredrik Gulbrandsen's touch off the post in the second half was the closest they came to getting on the scoresheet.


Rudi Garcia's Marseille Metamorphosis

Garcia's first 18 months in the Marseille hot seat have flown by and thus far been very beneficial for both parties, with the club restoring some of their former allure while the coach's reputation was aided after a sad end to his tenure with AS Roma.

The significance of Garcia's hand in that journey wasn't lost on Goal reporter Mohammed Ali, who paid tribute to the Frenchman after Thursday's first-leg result (language NSFW):

Mohammed Ali @mohammedali_93

After the shit we've been through very recently, I'm dumbstruck to be this close to a European final. Still 90 minutes to go, but in a VERY good position. Thanks @RudiGarcia

Their run to this season's Europa League semis—and very possibly further—has been the result of an overhaul in all aspects, but after several years of rotation, Garcia has settled on a very capable squad.

Thauvin—once a Newcastle United flop—and Payet, the hero returned from West Ham United, weren't the only Premier League alumni to have an impact, either, as Garcia's introduction of ex-Tottenham Hotspur misfit N'Jie took effect:

Olympique Marseille @OM_English

⏱️ 63' GOAAALLLLL!!!! ⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️⚽️ Clinton Njie doubles OM's advantage! What an impact from the substitute. Four minutes from coming on! Who assisted? You guessed - @dimpayet17 ! #OMFCS 2⃣-0⃣ ⚪️🔵 https://t.co/ToDkzZqBPW

One could see Garcia's attention to the cause even deep into injury time, marshalling his troops into the desired structure, belting out instructions to not give Salzburg even a last-gasp sight at goal.

A European crown would provide former Lille mastermind Garcia with huge vindication as part of his Marseille rebuild, rising back nearer to the managerial elite after several years in the wilderness.


Knockout Redemption

A small point though it may be, Thursday's win also showed Marseille they've come on since losing to Salzburg 1-0 in the group stage of this competition, except this result means so much more in comparison.

Fail to turn the fixture back at the Red Bull Arena and Salzburg are gone, with Marseille sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta having sent out something of a battle cry earlier in April:

UEFA Europa League @EuropaLeague

Andoni Zubizarreta, Marseille sporting director: "We know Salzburg. We lost there & drew at home [in the group stage this season]. Now this is a semi-final, it will be different." #UELdraw https://t.co/3HQlI4IrBm

Marseille failed to score in two group meetings with Salzburg but managed to do so twice in one night, a suggestion that Salzburg's stamina at this stage of the season could be beginning to wilt.