Four teams advanced to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League following last week’s four 2nd leg matches (Barcelona eliminated Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk blew past Roma, Schalke defeated Valencia, and Tottenham Hotspur held on to eliminate AC Milan). The remaining four slots will be filled after this week’s four 2nd leg matches: Manchester United-Olympique Marseille and Bayern Munich-Inter Milan today; Chelsea-København and Real Madrid-Lyon tomorrow.
(NB: As usual, all games kickoff at 20:45CET/19:45GMT–but due to daylight savings time, that means 3:45pmET/12:45pmPT in the US! Europe waits a couple more weeks to set their clocks forward–their Summer Time begins on March 27, so we’ll be back to the 2:45pmET kickoffs for the quarterfinals (1st legs of which will be played April 5-6, with 2nd legs the following week, April 12-13.)
Olympique Marseille visits Old Trafford today, attempting to advance to the final eight of the Champions League for the first time since 1993. That year, led by the first African superstar, Ghanaian Abedi Pelé, they went all the way and won the title–the one and only time a French club has won the Champions League.
Three weeks ago, Marseille held Manchester United to a scoreless draw at home in the Stade Velodrome in the first leg; hence Man U needs an outright victory in today’s match to advance. Look for Marseille to sit back and play a disciplined defensive game–and attempt to score at least one goal via a counterattack.
Among Marseille’s defenders is Argentine Gabriel Heinze–returning to Old Trafford to face the club he played for from 2004 to 2007, when he left for Real Madrid. At age 32, Heinze is not as quick he used to be, which forced Marseille manager Didier Deschamps to do “some tactical rejigging in response to recent poor form”, as the Guardian’s Paul Doyle wrote on Sunday:
The manager moved Gabriel Heinze from left-back, where his lack of pace was being exposed, to the centre of defence, reintroducing Taye Taiwo on the left – and the Nigerian’s enterprise going forward lends an extra dimension to Marseille’s attack. The other consequence of Heinze’s relocation was that the erstwhile centre-back, [Cameroonian] Stéphane Mbia, was redeployed as a holding midfielder. Marseille had been overrun in midfield too frequently recently; Mbia seems to have solved the problem.
Playing a linking role in the midfield is another experienced Argentine, 30-year old Lucho González. Gabriel and Heize have 71 and 43 caps for Argentina, respectively.
Valbuena is a diminutive attacking midfielder known as le petit vélo–the headline of that Guardian piece is “Marseille’s 5ft 4in Mathieu Valbuena could be big at Manchester United: Fit-again midfielder could be key to Marseille’s success in Champions League clash at Old Trafford”:
Valbuena is only 5ft 4in and, as a teenager, was released by Bordeaux on the grounds that he was too small to make it as a professional. But after making peace with Deschamps, who had initially made it clear the pet of the previous manager had no place in his plans, Valbuena became a key part of Marseille’s title-winning team and one of the few champions to excel consistently this term, until his [recent knee] injury. He provides most of the artistry to a team built primarily to be solid. “We need to be daring in Manchester, you can’t achieve anything if you don’t show adventure,” he declared ahead of Tuesday’s match.
Deschamps is unlikely to be so bold, but it may not be a shock if Valbuena has the last word. He does, after all, have previous in England: he scored a sumptuous winner for Marseille against Liverpool at Anfield in 2007, and, last November, was the choreographer as France led Fabio Capello’s stiffs a merry dance at Wembley.
Only fit enough to appear fleetingly as a substitute against United in the first leg, Valbuena islikely to start wide on the right at Old Trafford, and work his way infield, all mesmeric dribbles and cute passes. He may be small, but he tends to stand out.
Rémy is one of a handful of very talented French players born in 1987; here’s what Arsenal’s chief French scout Gilles Grimandi had to say in a conversation with BBC about Samir Nasri:
In France we had a special age group born in 1987, with Nasri, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Loïc Rémy and Jeremy Menez. All of these players were special talents and they won the Under-17 European Championship so everyone knew them for a long, long time. It was the best group of young players we had for maybe 20 years. Everyone was interested to see how they all developed. Benzema is now at Real Madrid, Ben Arfa at Newcastle, Remy at Marseilles, Menez at Roma and Nasri at Arsenal. All five of them had immense talent and when they played together for France at age group level it was near-impossible to say who was the best. If you showed them to five different scouts when they were 16 each would have picked a different player.
It will be interesting to watch this new generation of Frenchmen play together in the run up to Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014. Ben Arfa and of course Nasri also played for Marseille, though they didn’t play with each other nor with Rémy there. Nasri was there 2004-2008 (well, he grew up in suburbs of Marseille and played with their youth teams since the age of 10); Ben Arfa was there 2008-2010 before leaving for Newcastle; while Rémy came from Nice just last summer. Also, note that Benzema and Nasri are of Algerian descent, Ben Arfa of Tunisian descent, and Rémy of Martiniquais descent.
André Ayew is even younger–only 21 years old, born in Dec 1989. And although he was born in France, near Lille, he naturally plays internationally for Ghana. His father Abedi Ayew, better known as Abedi Pelé, was one of the greatest African players of all-time: named African Footballer of the Year three years in a row (1991, 1992, 1993), while playing in France for Lille and especially Marseille in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He was a magical number 10 during les années magiques de l’OM, which culminated with a Champions League title in 1993.
Marseille can only hope that André–and younger brother Jordan, who is also on the Marseille roster–achieve just a fraction of the magic and glory of the father: