After playing in the Milan derby (AC vs. Inter), the Derby of Italy (Juventus vs. Inter), the Manchester derby (United vs. City), the Merseyside derby (Liverpool vs. Everton) and the Derby de la Cote d’Azur (Nice vs. Monaco), Mario Balotelli will experience Le Classique on Sunday as his Marseille team travel to PSG.
The Italian striker will now be a part of the biggest game in French football. Marseille vs. PSG involves the whole country; it unites the provinces against the capital, even if PSG are getting more support around the nation now. And Balotelli loves occasions like this.
The 28-year-old has been an instant hit since joining Marseille at the end of January: scoring five goals in seven matches for his new team — a huge contrast with the first half of the season at Nice where he looked like he couldn’t be bothered to run, let alone score (no goals in 10 league matches.) Indeed, Balotelli has revitalised his career and has Marseille back in the race for a top three finish. Now his eyes are trained on upsetting the champions, but it won’t be an easy task.
PSG are 27 points ahead of l’OM in first place and have not lost a Classique since November 2011. They have won 15 and drawn three of the last 18 encounters; their dominance has been overwhelming and their last two home derbies resulted in easy 3-0 wins.
But it is probably the best time to face PSG. The humiliating 3-1 loss against Manchester United in the Champions League (throwing away a 2-0 first leg advantage) has scarred the players and angered the fans. PSG’s Ultras insulted the players when they got back to training and did not support the team at Dijon during the 4-0 win on Tuesday.
There have already been warnings that they will cause chaos in case of a draw or another defeat on Sunday. The atmosphere will be heavy, the pressure will be on and PSG still have injuries to contend with. Neymar is out and Edinson Cavani has not started a game since early February, so young Kylian Mbappe will lead the line once again.
In the reverse fixture at the Stade Velodrome in October, Mbappe, like Adrien Rabiot, was dropped for arriving late to the prematch team meeting. But he came off the bench to change the game as PSG won 2-0 and coach Thomas Tuchel was applauded for the way he handled the situation.
Sunday will be the first Classique at home for the German manager since he arrived in the summer but, after getting off lightly after the United catastrophe, he needs to get it right tactically and show he can handle the type of pressure that such a fixture brings.
Marseille, on the other hand, have nothing to lose. Their confidence is high after five wins and a draw in their last six league matches, all with “Balo” as a leader and in Rudi Garcia’s 4-4-2 formation, which seems taylor-made for him. The club are just three points behind Lyon in third place and the smiles are back in the squad after a disappointing first half of the season.
Balotelli knows that he could become a Marseille legend and write his name in the club’s history books if he can help mastermind an upset, and has already been on the attack about the game this week.
In an interview with local newspaper La Provence, he slammed PSG saying that “they are not a very good team, but they have very good players, there’s a difference.” He also added that “Marseille are the biggest club in France,” comparing them to Italian side Napoli for the atmosphere and the passion of the fans.
But while Balotelli has played in many derbies over the years, his record in them is not fantastic. Apart from the famous “Why always me?” game against Manchester United when he scored a brace for City in a 6-1 win in October 2011, and six goals in four games against Monaco for Nice, he has been pretty average.
On Sunday, his presence on the pitch will bring an extra bit of glamour, passion and excitement. But the expectations on him will be higher than ever as well.
While the Marseille fans have not been allowed to travel to Paris by the police for security reasons, the players get support from across the country and they will need it. L’OM have a huge mountain to climb but Guingamp and Manchester United have both done it in the last two months, so why not them?