In the Champions League next season, there will only be room for one Olympique. Both l’Olympique de Marseille and l’Olympique Lyonnais had the objective of finishing in the top three in Ligue 1 this year, but PSG and Monaco have taken the first two tickets so the rivals from the southeast are fighting for the last spot and a place in the Champions League qualifiers.
It is a race that Marseille could have won a long time ago. On March 18, l’OM played host to l’OL with a nice five point cushion over their opponents, who were without their best player, Nabil Fekir. Yet, Marseille lost a game they could not afford to lose, in dramatic circumstances as a result of a last-minute Memphis Depay winner.
The dynamic has totally changed since that game. Lyon are now ahead of Marseille due to a better goal difference (+33 against +26) after consecutive wins and Rudi Garcia’s men lost two precious points at home against Montpellier on Sunday evening (0-0).
For the first time since mid-January, they are out of the top three. The race is not over yet, with six games to go, but both psychologically and in terms of momentum, Lyon have the advantage.
Even their schedule between now and the end of the season gives them the edge: four of their remaining matches will be at home (against Amiens, Nantes, Troyes and Nice), while Marseille have only three at their ground (Lille, Nice and Amiens.) Lyon’s away trips will take them to Dijon, who are pretty much safe already, and Strasbourg; Marseille will go to Troyes, who are fighting to stay up, then Angers and Guingamp who are safe.
Lyon have Fekir back from injury now and Depay’s form has been spectacular since his goal at the Velodrome. On Sunday, the Dutchman scored one and set up four more away at Metz — he became the first player since Santi Cazorla for Arsenal against Wigan in May 2013 to assist four goals in the same game in the “big five” European leagues. The former Manchester United winger started up front in a 4-4-2 formation and looked at ease in a centre forward role. It would not be surprising if manager Bruno Genesio kept him in that position for the games to come.
Despite the disappointment of being knocked out of the Europa League in the round of 16 by CSKA Moscow last month, and despite criticism of Genesio (who doesn’t always look like he knows what he is doing), Lyon are still there. They were only eighth in the table back in October, but the wonderful season Fekir is having (16 goals and five assists in the league), the emerging talents of midfielders Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar, and the confirmation of the quality of Lucas Tousart, have given them a great chance to finish third.
If Marseille were to miss out it would be a huge blow for them. The club’s chairman Jacques-Henri Eyraud set a fourth-place finish as the objective at the start of the season, but it would be a big disappointment to not qualify for the Champions League given how the campaign has gone to date.
Garcia and his players were second in the table, ahead of Monaco and Lyon in February. They had great momentum, a lot of valuable experience (which Lyon don’t have), decent depth in their squad, and one of the top performers in the league: Florian Thauvin (16 goals and 10 assists.)
However, Marseille’s failure to do well in big games has cost them badly. Their away record is terrible, with losses at PSG, Monaco and Lyon and draws at Bordeaux and St Etienne. At home it is not much better, with draws against PSG and Monaco, and a defeat against Lyon.
The team’s good run in the Europa League, to a quarterfinal second leg against RB Leipzig on Thursday, has taken a heavy toll on the players since January, with a lot of injuries and dip in form because of fatigue.
If Marseille are not considered favourites to clinch third place, they can only blame themselves. They once had control over their own destiny but, with six games to go, Lyon are the ones in the driving seat.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.