Lens win in Marseille and set their sights on European football

It’s no wonder Marseille feature so often in the Sunday evening slot in Ligue 1. Big derbies – such as the clash between Lyon and Saint-Étienne next week – are also chosen for the glamour match of the weekend, but the atmosphere at the Vélodrome has been electric this season and their match against Lens this weekend was no exception.

Lens are hardly box office but, after a strong start to the season, they went into the game knowing that a victory would take them above the hosts and into second place in the table. They succeeded, winning a scintillating game 3-2 to show that they might have enough about them to finish in the top six this season.

Franck Haise’s men battled hard for a place in Europe last season before missing out at the very end of the campaign. They had to play Lille, Lyon, Monaco and PSG in the final eight weeks of the season. With all four of those clubs still in the running for the title, they were given no quarter, and picked up just two points from those fixtures. Lens eventually fell short of a place in the Europa Conference League by a single point, being caught at the death by Rennes.

This season, though, little was expected of the team. Their decision to sell key defender Loïc Badé to Rennes suggested a lack of ambition, as did their own signings. Their only incomings were far more callow (Christopher Wooh), lacking experience at a high level in Europe (Przemysław Frankowski), or also-rans (Kevin Danso).

The core of the team that impressed last season was retained, but they had an inauspicious start to the season, drawing three of their first four matches and only winning against a Monaco side who were struggling to integrate a host of youthful signings. After four games in August, they were unbeaten but only had six points. A last-minute winner against relegation strugglers Bordeaux then followed, before a fiery derby win over Lille. They suffered their first defeat of the season in midweek, losing 1-0 at home to Strasbourg after Danso was sent off early in the second half.

Haise made some surprising changes for the trip to Marseille this weekend. When he dropped several key players, including Gaël Kakuta (their top scorer last season), the superb wing-back Jonathan Clauss, and Ignatius Ganago, it had the air of a manager ceding the match to Marseille to some extent, despite the stakes.

Frankowski was deployed on the right in place of the excellent Clauss, with Kakuta, who has been struggling with injury, left on the bench for the callow David Da Costa. Frankowski has been excellent this season, providing assists with regularity, but it remained to be seen how effective the Polish international would prove on the opposite flank. Costa was something of a surprise inclusion; Haise has often preferred to play Seko Fofana in a more advanced role in Kakuta’s absence, and the Portuguese had played just 34 minutes this season before he took to the field on Sunday.

As it turned out, Haise’s choices were not gambles at all. He had also added a subtle tactical wrinkle to his approach, with Da Costa playing wide on the left rather than behind a central pairing of Florian Sotoca and Arnaud Kalimuendo. This allowed Fofana to act as a de facto playmaker, with Sotoca dropping deep to cover the Ivorian’s runs, and Kalimuendo and Da Costa peeling wide to stretch the Marseille defence.

Rather than being a reaction to fixture congestion and absences, Haise’s shift from his normal 3-4-1-2 was by design. Speaking after the match, he said that he made the changes because of the frustrating defeat to Strasbourg: “We’ve modified our system. We’ve been working hard for many months; in the space of a few days we managed to tweak a few things. There was a lot of initiative-taking. I have players who adapt very quickly, who are smart and have a strong mentality.”

Granted, Marseille had chances to win the match, and only a jaw-dropping save by Jean-Louis Leca to deny Gerson from point-blank range preserved the result, but this was a statement of intent from Lens. Haise’s men scarcely seemed to blink, despite the pressure of playing in a raucous atmosphere in primetime. Fixture congestion and the frustration of what initially looked like a tough penalty decision early in the match may have frustrated the hosts, but Marseille manager Jorge Sampaoli was also quick to congratulate Lens: “We weren’t able to neutralise them. We didn’t stick to our principles. We have to be able to manage these kinds of matches, because there will be more in the future.”

While this is certainly true for Marseille, who still harbour ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League after a solid start to the season, they may have to deal with another competitor for a place in the top three.

After a relatively comfortable 3-1 win over Troyes in midweek, Lyon fans packed into the Parc OL on Saturday to support a team on the rise as they hosted Lorient. Lyon have looked sharper with every match under Peter Bosz, with new signings Emerson and Xherdan Shaqiri bedding in nicely. The Chelsea loanee was shown a contentious red card after 15 minutes, and Armand Laurienté scored from the resulting free-kick for Lorient. Things looked to be going pear-shaped for Lyon. Their response, however, was as heroic as any they have offered in the recent past. They battled through injuries to Jason Denayer and Islam Slimani to level and nearly win the match. The lack of depth in their squad, combined with their commitments in the Europa League, may hold back Bosz and his team, but things are looking up in Lyon for the first time in quite a while.

Monaco won again, beating Clermont 3-1 on the road on Sunday to pick up their third victory in four matches across all competitions. Kevin Volland and Wissam Ben Yedder were both on the scoresheet again – as they had been in a 3-1 win over St Etienne on Wednesday. Niko Kovac’s side are seemingly getting to grips with their campaign. Their clash with Lyon next month looks appealing.

Timothy Weah’s time in Lille has been star-crossed to say the least. The club signed him from PSG in 2019 after he had enjoyed a decent loan spell at Celtic. He was injured for the entirety of his first season at Lille before Covid-19 cut the campaign short. He was fit last season but started infrequently due to competition in the squad from Jonathan Bamba, Renato Sanches, record signing Jonathan David and Burak Yilmaz. He played up top with David this weekend against Strasbourg (Yilmaz being rested with an eye on the Champions League) and he sparkled, assisting the Canadian for one goal and drawing a penalty for the other in a 2-1 win. Strasbourg have been ropy at the back at times but, on the basis of this experiment, might Weah merit more opportunities to lead the line?