Le Classique: When two tribes go to war

October 6, 2012 10:39 am

We start the build up to this Sunday’s Le Classique with a debut piece by Theo Benneworth. A life-long Ipswich fan who lives in Lyon and writes for The Football Ramble, its a crazy combination for what could be a crazy match.

This weekend, Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome plays host to the biggest match in world football.

Ok, so that might be a slight exaggeration. In fact, with Barcelona – Real Madrid, the Milan Derby and Porto – Sporting (among others) also taking place on Sunday, some cheeky observers may suggest that Marseille versus Paris Saint-Germain is not even the biggest game of the evening. But they would be wrong.

Le Classique. Le Clasico. Le derby de France. Whichever nickname you prefer, one thing is for sure: Olympique de Marseille vs Paris Saint-Germain is the one all French football lovers look out for when the fixture list is released. It is the battle of the country’s two best-supported clubs, from its two biggest cities whose cultures and mentalities are poles apart. OM (Champions League, 1993) and PSG (Cup Winners’ Cup, 1996) are also the only two clubs to have brought continental glory to France, and both lay claim to the unofficial title of ‘France’s Biggest Club’.

As if all that wasn’t enough, diverging club finances add extra edge to this, the mother of all Gallic grudge matches. While PSG have spent the past year on a seemingly-constant, QSI-funded shopping spree, OM have spent the same period cutting costs, selling assets and hunting bargains. Yet another explanation, then, for high levels of tension between the two sides.

And yet, this relatively young rivalry (PSG was only founded in 1970) has not always been as fiercely contested on the pitch as off it. OM went unbeaten in Ligue 1 against their Parisian rivals for the vast majority of the 90s, for example, while the duo haven’t produced a one-two league finish since PSG’s most recent title win, way back at the end of the 1993-94 season.

This weekend’s meeting is somewhat more promising, with both clubs having made positive starts to the 2012-13 campaign. Going into the eighth round of fixtures, Marseille top the table with 18 points from a possible 21 as they look to make up for last season’s below-par performance (OM finished tenth, a staggering 34 points behind eventual champions and southern rivals, Montpellier).

PSG, for their part, sit in second place on 15 points. After recording three draws in their first three league games, Carlo Ancelotti’s men have since won four in a row. What’s more, in their first seven Ligue 1 fixtures, they have scored 12 goals and conceded just three (keeping five clean sheets along the way). Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the biggest Parisian galactico of all, already leads the scoring charts having chalked up seven goals (and an assist for good measure).

So, for the first time since January 1994 (when David Ginola was still a PSG player, by the way), Le Classique’s two participants go into the game occupying Ligue 1’s top two spots. All is not rosy in the two clubs’ respective gardens, however. Prior  to OM’s comfortable 5-1 Europa League home win against Cypriot champions AEL Limassol on Thursday, Elie Baup’s side had seen their perfect start to the league season come to a crashing halt, as Valenciennes dished out a surprise 4-1 pounding in glorious afternoon sunshine last Sunday.

Although still unbeaten in the league, PSG lost their first game of the season 1-0 against Porto in the Champion’s League on Wednesday, having been thoroughly outplayed in Portugal. Both outfits will be keen to get back to winning ways in Ligue 1 dès que possible, and where better to do so than against the bitter enemies in this season’s first Classique?

As with many big footballing rivalries, the fixture has been plagued by off-field violence and incidents over the years- to such an extent that away fans have been absent from the games for the past two seasons. Sunday night’s rendez-vous should have been given added spice by the return of visiting supporters for the first league Classique since February 2010. Unfortunately, the only authorised way for PSG fans to travel would have been to take a flight, organised by the club at a cost of €340 per head. According to reports in L’Equipe, there haven’t been many takers (the club having already been forced to cancel the planned midweek fans’ flight for the Porto game due to a lack of interest).

Away fans or no away fans, this game never lacks in animosity and unsurprisingly, the aforementioned ponytailed Swede has already added more fuel to the fire. Ahead of his first OM-PSG, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was interviewed for TF1’s football programme Téléfoot. Footballer-turned-journalist Olivier Dacourt, who played alongside Ibra at Inter Milan, asked the big man for his opinion on Marseille’s central defender Nicolas Nkoulou. A seemingly-embarrassed Zlatan replied that he had never heard of the Cameroon international: “Not to be disrespectful… because I respect all players… but if I don’t know [him], I don’t know. I’m sorry”. Although more the result of Téléfoot’s sensationalist, gossip magazine-style reporting rather than any malice or arrogance on the part of Ibrahimovic, this sound bite will surely act as further motivation- as if it was needed- for Nkoulou and his team mates.

The last four meetings of the two teams have all resulted in home victories and, should this trend continue at the Vélodrome on Sunday, OM would move six points ahead of Ancelotti’s men. Should the Italian tactician lead his troops to victory on enemy soil, however, the two sides would be level on 18 points as the curtain closes on the season’s 8th journée.

Whatever the outcome of this episode of the saga, French football will barely have time to catch its breath before the two clubs meet again. They have been drawn together in the Coupe de la Ligue Round of 16 and will recommence hostilities at the Parc des Princes on the 30th October. Here’s hoping that this month’s two Classiques will be worthy of the name.

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