Dimitri Payet didn’t hold back. “They have two different visions of football. The most obvious difference is that today we have a coach who speaks with his heart and does not try to make light of subjects when the hard things need to be said.” For Payet, the difference between new Marseille coach André Villas-Boas and the man he replaced, Rudi Garcia, is stark. That difference was evident this weekend, when Garcia returned to the Vélodrome as Lyon manager and suffered a 2-1 defeat. The battle between Marseille and Lyon has become the fiercest modern rivalry in Ligue 1 over the last few years and the balance of power shifted towards Villas-Boas’s team on Sunday night.
Marseille had a terrible record against Lyon under Garcia. The two clubs met five times in the league while he was Marseille manager and Lyon won all five of those encounters. In fact, Marseille’s victory this weekend was their first against Lyon since the 2014. Even though results have looked one-sided, historic tensions between the two clubs have escalated in recent seasons. Prior to their trip to PSG last month, Marseille captain Steve Mandanda even admitted: “Today, there is less rivalry [with PSG]. It’s more with Lyon that we find that now.”
On the evidence of recent meetings, Mandanda is right. PSG have swept Marseille aside in recent seasons, winning 16 of their last 18 encounters, but the fixtures between Marseille and Lyon have repeatedly come to the heaviest of blows. When Mathieu Valbuena returned to the Vélodrome as a Lyon player in September 2015, Marseille fans hanged an effigy of the player and the game had to be delayed for half an hour. When Bruno Génésio led Lyon to victory in the Vélodrome last March, his team’s last-minute winner sparked a brawl in the tunnel.
At one point it looked as if the game this weekend was going to be called off. Lyon’s outspoken president, Jean-Michel Aulas, threatened to pull his team out of the fixture when their team bus was attacked on its way to the ground. “We ran into an ambush! If it continues like this, we won’t be playing,” said Aulas. Such was the tension beforehand, that Lyon fans were banned from travelling to the Vélodrome at all.
It seems the only thing the two sets of fans may be able to agree on is their current dislike of Garcia. The Marseille fans really turned against him last season, regularly protesting against his management and the board’s running of the club. Garcia had led an attacking Lille team to the Ligue 1 title in 2011 and also taken Marseille to the Europa League final in 2018, but those successes were distant memories for Marseille fans. After he failed to secure European football for the club, his departure in the summer was welcomed by fans.
Garcia rebounded more quickly than even he might have expected. After Lyon’s experiment with Sylvinho – just the club’s second ever foreign manager – failed catastrophically just 11 games into the season, Aulas turned to Garcia: a safe (and French) replacement. It was something of a shock given that Aulas had called Garcia “arrogant” last year and previously claimed there was “zero chance of seeing Rudi Garcia at Lyon”. Lyon fans were far from impressed with the appointment, booing Garcia before his first home match in charge last month.
Depressingly for the club’s fans, Garcia’s Lyon are already doing a good impression of Garcia’s Marseille. They have hardly improved on the dross served up in Sylvinho’s brief reign. Génésio – whose tumultuous tenure and running battle with fan groups ended last season – was fiercely unpopular by the end of his time at the club, but at least he understood Lyon’s vibrant, young, player-nurturing ethos. A lifelong connection to the club gave him “OL DNA”, as Aulas put it. Garcia has done little to show that he will nurture that identity – or any identity at all.
Villas-Boas is still searching for the right formula at Marseille, but he has provided an ageing, workmanlike squad with drive and organisation. And crucially, unlike Garcia, he has cajoled Payet into match-winning form. Payet was often anonymous, timid and unsettled under Garcia last season. He was even left out of the starting XI for six consecutive games in the spring. The significance of Garcia’s return was not lost on Payet, who says he used the reunion as “motivation”. “Our relationship deteriorated,” explained Payet. “There were some quite spicy moments. Communication had broken down. We did not leave on good terms.”
Payet was clearly desperate to impress on Sunday night, putting in an unusually intense and bullish display. He led the charge for Marseille, stroking home the opening goal from the penalty spot and then doubling the lead before half time with a well worked goal. He started the move in his own half and then made his way into the box, where he received a pass, turned neatly and struck his shot into the corner to put Marseille 2-0 up.
A moment of miscommunication between Marseille centre-back Álvaro González and goalkeeper Mandanda allowed Moussa Dembélé to head home early in the second half. When González was sent off for a clumsy challenge – also on Dembélé – it looked as if Lyon had been given a way back into the game. Garcia’s side were up against 10 men for the last 26 minutes but, unsurprisingly for both sets of fans, they quickly ran out of ideas. Marseille held out comfortably for the 2-1 win, which puts them second in Ligue 1. Lyon are 14th.
“We prepared well for this match,” said Payet afterwards. “We had a very intense week of work. We had a gameplan, very specific ideas and everything worked well. We had to stay united.” Payet’s insinuations were clear: that such preparation, intensity, clear planning and unity were lacking under Garcia.
Lyon president Aulas did his best to distract attention from his team’s defeat and his manager’s weaknesses. Instead, he congratulated Marseille for “conditioning their little ball boys to stop getting us the ball at the end of the match.” When Aulas resorts to such diatribes – he also called Marseille “a lawless city” in reference to the Lyon team bus being attacked – it usually means he is concerned.
Villas-Boas’s arrival at Marseille has not caused a revolution, but he has developed a strong base from which to work. On the evidence of this long-awaited victory, his main achievement so far may simply be convincing Payet to not hold back.
Ligue 1 talking points
• Edinson Cavani’s time at PSG may finally be up. Cavani picked up an injury in the first month of the season and could only watch as Mauro Icardi was parachuted into the side and quickly became Thomas Tuchel’s go-to striker. After five games on the bench, Cavani was given his first start since August this weekend for PSG’s trip to Brest. Icardi has proved both prolific and decisive in the interim. He scored nine goals in his first 10 games, including four in the Champions League. Where Cavani often seemed marginalised by Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, Icardi is proving a hit in the dressing room and clinical in front of goal. The transition from one striker to the other was summed up this weekend in Icardi brief cameo at Brest. With 10 minutes to play, he replaced Cavani – who had not scored – and quickly hit another late winner. It would be a surprise if PSG’s all-time top scorer is still at the club beyond next summer.
• St Étienne were in the relegation zone when they sacked Ghislain Printant at the start of October. After their 3-2 win at Nantes this weekend, they are now up to fourth. They are undefeated under Claude Puel, having won four of his five league games in charge. No team in the league has a better record in that time. Puel kicked off his tenure with a derby win over Lyon, immediately giving the team defensive solidity, more fluidity and a clear plan of attack. William Saliba’s return from injury proved timely (although he suffered another setback this week); attacker Denis Bouanga’s form has been outstanding in a variety of positions; and the blooding of youngsters such as rangy striker Charles Abi, versatile defender Wesley Fofana and dynamic midfielder Zaydou Youssouf have added extra impetus. With Ligue 1 so evenly matched below PSG, this could finally be the season that St Étienne return to the Champions League.
Ligue 1 table