Manchester United face improving Marseille
After Crawley Town gave Manchester United the fright of their lives in the FA Cup on Saturday, what are the chances of Olympique Marseille going one better and knocking Sir Alex Ferguson's side out of the Champions League?
Nearly all the bookmakers favour United over their French counterparts but Marseille may prove to be a better side than many might expect.
They currently lie third in the French first division, three points behind surprise leaders Lille, but are still playing catch-up following an indifferent start to the season, drawing two and losing two of their first six league games.
Marseille also lost their first two Champions League group matches - at home to Spartak Moscow and away to Chelsea - failing to score a goal in either game. They started getting into their stride by mid-October and subsequently rattled off four straight wins in the Champions League, including a 1-0 win over Chelsea in the Velodrome in their final group game, although there was little riding on the enocounter at that stage.
Why did they start poorly? Well, part of the problem was that the Marseille directors decided to cash in on Europe-wide interest in Mamadou Niang. The Senegalese striker, who topped the French first division scoring charts last season with 18 goals, was sold to Turkish club Fenerbahce for 8m euros..
The money Marseille received for Niang was used to help finance the 15m euros purchase of Loic Remy from Nice. A France international, Remy's career at Marseille got off to a bad start when club president Jean-Claude Dassier revealed days after his move that the player had a suspected heart defect.
Remy cost Marseille 15m euros. Photo: Getty Images
It took a few weeks for Remy to be given the all-clear but it took a little longer for the team to recover following the upheaval, although coach Didier Deschamps deserves credit for getting the French champions back on track as quickly as he did. Their prospects certainly look a lot rosier than they did four months ago.
Marseille remain arguably France's biggest and best supported club but they spent almost two decades in the doldrums before winning their first Ligue 1 title since 1992 last season. The return of Deschamps, in the summer of 2009, to the club he served so well as a player was the catalyst for their transformation, although critics will argue that last season was a poor one for French domestic football, despite Lyon's march to the Champions League semi-finals.
The defence has been key for Marseille this time around, especially as their attack has not always been as potent as it was last season. Taye Taiwo, who I saw being given a torrid time by Cristiano Ronaldo and his Real Madrid colleagues at the Bernabeu last season, has improved immeasurably, while Souleymane Diawara and Gabriel Heinze may not be quite as fast as they were in their prime but their positioning remains superb.
Looking ahead to the game on Wednesday, Deschamps will have been relieved that his impressive attacking midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, one of heroes of their success story last season, resumed full training on Monday after sustaining a knee injury a month ago and is expected to be back against United.
But problems persist up front. Andre-Pierre Gignac is expected to miss the clash with Manchester United because of a hamstring strain suffered in their 2-1 win over St Etienne on Saturday, while striker partner Remy is doubtful after suffering a bad knock after scoring his side's second goal at the weekend.
That means Ghanaian brothers Andre and Jordan Ayew, sons of former Marseille player Abedi Pele, could feature, possibly alongside each other. Along with Deschamps, the siblings also provide a link between the current side and the team that achieved so much in the early 1990s, although that period in Marseille's history is tarnished by the conviction of then club president Bernard Tapie for match-fixing.
Whatever happens against Manchester United on Wednesday, we may not see as memorable a goal as Deportivo Coruna goalkeeper Daniel Aranzubia's in his side's 1-1 draw with La Liga rivals Almena.
In addition to being a pretty impressive header from a technical viewpoint, the goal came almost five minutes into injury time, earning Deportivo a vital point and easing their relegation worries a little.
Chilavert was a hit at both ends of the pitch. Photo: Getty Images
Football fans may have become a bit blasé when it comes to goalies scoring goals ever since Jose Luis Chilavert started banging them in regularly in the 1990s. Nevertheless, Aranzubia's effort was memorable because it was the first headed goal by a goalkeeper in La Liga. Sevilla's Andres Palop has scored with his head but his injury-time equaliser against Shaktar Donetsk came in the last 16 of the 2007 Uefa Cup.
Comments on this blog in the space below. Other questions on European football to: firstname.lastname@example.org. I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.
Q) What's your opinion on Borussia Dortmund's challenge for the German title? Before the winter break, they were runaway leaders but recent form suggests that things may be different now.
Blaine Keetch, Nottingham, England.
A) Having received this question last week, I took the trouble to see some of Dortmund's game against St Pauli, especially as I have a soft spot for the latter and have seen few of their games this season. Dortmund defeated St Pauli, who, contrary to some predictions, are doing a decent job of holding their own and are currently 11th in the Bundesliga, without too much trouble in a 2-0 victory. Even if some of Dortmund's recent performances have not been quite as impressive as the ones at the end of last year - three draws in their four games prior to this weekend certainly made it look like they were stumbling - it is still difficult to see them throwing away a 10-point lead with only 11 games remaining. However, there is no getting over the fact that this Saturday's match at third-placed Bayern Munich will still be a big one