Europa Preview – Flying the Other Flags
Thursday sees two French teams competing for European success and to help out on the coefficient front. In a neat twist, they will also play each other in Ligue 1 on Sunday, as Marseille try to do something – again – about their home form, with no league wins at the Velodrome since September, and Saint-Etienne look to keep challenging for a podium finish.
Saint-Etienne v Basel : 18.00 GMT
Les Verts did a decent if slightly underwhelming job in the group stages to come second behind Lazio, scoring ten and conceding seven in the process, and after a wobble early in 2016, are now in reasonable form in Ligue 1 as well, and sit fourth, only behind Nice on goal difference.
Despite putting four past Bordeaux recently, goals are their issue, with nobody getting more than two in the group stage, including the injured Robert Beric, and a degree of scrolling required in the league table to find Valentin Eysseric and Nolan Roux on four. Thank heavens for Mustapha Bayal Sall! However, their January transfer dealings look to have unearthed a real gem, as winger Oussama Tannane has already been voted MOTM three times by the Stephanois faithful, most recently in the 1-1 draw against Monaco at the weekend. Also, Romain Hamouma returns after several weeks out with a calf injury, but is not in the starting line-up after only being confirmed yesterday.
They will be facing a Basel team currently PSG-ing the Swiss Super League, where they are top, 15 points clear of Grasshopper. They also had nobody with more than two goals in the group stage (including Mohamed Elneny, now at Arsenal), but put in a good shift to top group I ahead of Fiorentina. Marc Janko is their usual dangerman up-front with 13 goals in the league, and they look defensively well-organised.
Saint-Etienne played an impressive pressing game with three at the back against PSG for the first hour, but have reverted to a back four in the four games since, and given the squad announced (Loic Perrin injured, no Kevin Malcuit), that continues. This match looks likely to be a low-scoring affair, if the two teams prioritise caution at the back and look to score on the break (cue: jinx – Ed.).
Saint-Etienne : Ruffier – Theophile-Catherine, Pogba, Bayal Sall, Tabanou – Lemoine, Cohade, Clement – Monnet-Paquet, Roux, Tannane
Basel : Vaclik – Lang, Suchy, Samuel, Safari – Xhaka, Bjarneson, Zuffi – Embolo, Janko, Steffen
Marseille v Athletic Bilbao : 20.05 GMT
The later game has, prima facie, the potential to be more lively: Marseille came second in Group F behind Braga, scoring twelve and conceding seven, with Georges-Kevin Nkoudou bagging four, and Michy Batshuayi three. Athletic Bilbao topped Group L ahead of Augsburg, Partizan and AZ Alkmaar with an impressive 16 scored to eight against, Aritz Aduriz their key attacker with six in the Europa, and 13 in La Liga, where they sit in seventh place.
While Batshuayi has looked a little out-of-sorts in recent matches, OM have finally reinforced their attacking options with the arrival of Steven Fletcher in the January window, as well as taking back Florian Thauvin from Newcastle. With Remy Cabella suspended for this match, the mercurial number 24 is likely to start, but it will be interesting to see whether Michel sticks with Batshuayi or starts Fletcher up-front. Further back, Brice Dja Djedje is out for a couple of weeks after limping off against Nice, and Benjamin Mendy is still out; worryingly for the fans, Lass Diarra was listed as ‘doubtful’, but has been included in the group.
Local reports suggest that ticket sales are not going well, with around 20,000 expected at the Velodrome for this match (capacity: 67,000), leading to the closure of both goal-ends. The OM faithful may be going spare at the home form in the league, but if that makes qualifying for Europe next season look highly unlikely, they do have a chance to do something in it this season. The key objective would seem to be sitting on Aduriz, and second top-scorer Inaki Williams on the wing; with the OM defence prone to a rick, another commanding performance from Steve Mandanda may be required if Marseille are to prevail.
Marseille : Mandanda, Pelé, Escales – Manquillo, Nkoulou, Rekik, Rolando, Sparagna, De Ceglie – Diarra, Alessandrini, Sarr, Isla, Barrada, Romao – Fletcher, Nkoudou, Batshuayi, Thauvin, Rabillard.
Athletic Bilbao : Iraizoz, Herrerin – Laporte, San José, Etxeita, Balenziaga, Lekue, Boveda, Elustondo – Eraso, Susaeta, Mikel Rico, Gurpegi, Benat, De Marcos – Williams, Aduriz, Muniain, Sabin Merino.