“Imbeciles.” “Red with Shame.” “OM breaks Paris.” The headlines in France after Le Classique could not have been more damning. The match, always a showpiece for French football, was settled by Florian Thauvin’s goal in the first half. The narrative of PSG coasting to another title has been changed. However, the focus at the end of play was on the five red cards shown by the referee in injury time – two to Marseille and three to the hosts – and Neymar’s accusation of racism against Marseille defender Álvaro González.
That such a big match should end in ignominy will be a real source of disappointment for the league. Aside from a dull goalless draw between Lyon and Bordeaux on Friday, the weekend’s action had been exciting, with plenty of goals, including a spectacular finish from Irvin Cardona in Brest’s 2-0 win at Dijon. However, there was never any doubt that the big story of the weekend for the world at large would come from the Parc des Princes. It was certainly a spectacle, although not always for the way in which the two teams played.
PSG went into the game looking vulnerable. They had been beaten by newly promoted Lens in midweek and were missing Marquinhos, Mauro Icardi and Kylian Mbappé. Marseille clearly smelled blood against the champions. Yet, aside from Thauvin’s goal, most of the best chances fell to the hosts. Marseille keeper Steve Mandanda played a blinder in keeping the PSG forwards at bay, making a string of point-blank saves.
The 35-year-old appears to be as sharp as he was last season. Despite his age, on the evidence of the first two matches of the campaign, the Marseille captain looks well placed to lead his team to a title challenge. Marseille beat Brest 3-2 in their opening fixture and a win against Saint-Étienne on Thursday would take them top the table on their own.
The match, played before a crowd of 5,000 fans on a balmy evening in Paris, was feisty throughout, with 14 bookings. There was only one goal but both sides played as if their opponents were there for the taking. This approach is certainly refreshing, particularly from a Marseille perspective. They had not beaten PSG in 20 attempts across all competitions and had suffered some embarrassing losses in that spell, including a 4-0 demolition last autumn that underscored the gulf in class and resources between the two clubs.
But André Villas-Boas’ players were well up for it from the start, snapping into challenges with a vigour rarely seen before his appointment. After a rickety start, the visitors settled well and scored the opening goal. Darío Benedetto had the ball in the net to double that lead just after the hour mark but the goal was incorrectly ruled out for offside. Villas-Boas, whose somewhat star-crossed time in England is but a brief interlude in an impressive career, has his team fighting for each other. They look so much more comfortable going forward and, with Thauvin back from injury, there is again a real case to be made for Marseille as legitimate title challengers.
What made Marseille’s victory especially impressive was that PSG matched them for intent and energy. The 1-0 loss at Lens had stung and Thomas Tuchel’s side responded to Marseille’s physicality and aggression in kind. Villas-Boas has installed grit and togetherness in his side and Tuchel has done the same. There is an idea that PSG is a “plastic” club populated by indifferent and mercenary millionaires, but the combativeness of their play, their desire to battle to the last and the way they took the result very personally shows that Tuchel has given his side a passion that had been lacking before.
There was even, one could say, echoes of a bygone era. The teams’ enmity towards each other came to a head in a series of confrontations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In May 1988, PSG secured a victory in Marseille that was crucial in keeping them in Ligue 1 but the game was marred by PSG defender Marcel Bibard imitating the referee’s whistle when Marseille forward Jean-Pierre Papin was through on goal. Papin only realised he had been deceived after he had given up the chance to score, kicking off angry exchanges. The enmity between the players continued over the following years, with one particularly violent clash in 1992 producing more than 50 fouls.
There have been flashpoints since – in 2000, a Marseille fan was left paralysed after being struck by a seat thrown from the PSG fan section and, in 2010, a PSG fan died in riots so bad that PSG goalkeeper Gregory Coupet said he would not take his children to watch the sides play each other – but much of the venom seemed to have departed of late.
Part of that, of course, was down to the shifting fortunes of the clubs, with PSG players seemingly coasting on their talent rather than delivering a battling performance with the chips being down. Now, though, it looks as if Villas-Boas has brought the fire back for the southern side. Despite the ugly scenes at the end of the evening, Le Classique was, for the first time in nearly a decade, more than able to live up to its name.
• Monaco, playing their third match under new manager Niko Kovac, recorded a classy 2-1 win over Nantes at the Stade Louis-II. The team continue to evolve and rebuild, and Kovac’s ethos of playing a high-intensity pressing game appears to be paying dividends. Goals from Willem Guebbels and Sofiane Diop also validated Kovac’s concept of a meritocracy built on youth. While the youngsters have served him well, Kovac was also quick to laud the play of Cesc Fàbregas, who absolutely ran the game as a deep-lying playmaker. Protected as he was by two more mobile midfielders, he offered a sublime range of passing. His burgeoning relationship with Gelson Martins and Kevin Volland could be a key to keeping Monaco in the running for a return to the Champions League.
• The other side besides Marseille to have a perfect start is, unexpectedly, Saint-Étienne. Their form in the first part of the calendar year was relegation-level, and with key players such as Yann M’Vila, Loïc Perrin, William Saliba and Stéphane Ruffier moving on, this season looked perilous indeed. However, after some canny summer transfer business – bringing in Yvan Neyou, Yvann Maçon and Adil Aouchiche – they look like an exciting, young unit. Their clash with Marseille on Thursday already looks appealing, but no matter the result there, their season to date has shown the wisdom of trusting in Claude Puel.
• Finally, do yourself a favour and look up Irvin Cardona’s goal for Brest against Dijon. The former Monaco striker is more than a showpiece player; he was integral to the Breton side’s survival last year. The competition for goal of the season may already have ended following his incandescent finish at the back post.