By Matthew Spiro at the Stade Vélodrome
Olympique de Marseille seized the initiative in their UEFA Cup quarter-final against FC Internazionale, earning a slender 1-0 first-leg victory thanks to Didier Drogba's second-half goal in a pulsating match.
The Ivorian international struck in the first minute of the second half to give his side something to defend in Wednesday's second leg at the San Siro - but will miss that match having picked up his third yellow card in European competition for excessive celebrations.
Marseille lined up with Drogba as a lone striker in the absence of the suspended Ahmed Hossam 'Mido' and the injured Steve Marlet, while playmakers Laurent Batlles and Camel Meriem were handed a rare opportunity to start a game together.
Inter coach Alberto Zaccheroni was forced into a defensive reshuffle, Marco Materazzi being replaced by Daniele Adani after failing a late fitness test. Greek international Giorgios Karagounis took the place of the ineligible Dejan Stankovic behind strikers Obafemi Martins and Christian Vieri.
The visitors were also forced to change their goalkeeper and Alberto Fontana, standing in for the injured Francesco Toldo, was called into action as early as the second minute, reacting quickly to push out a stinging drive from Meriem. Spurred on by the home fans, Marseille attacked relentlessly in a frantic opening, with Drogba's ambitious overhead kick flashing well wide from the edge of the area.
Cristiano Zanetti glanced a header past the far post from Karagounis' 12th-minute corner but it was a rare moment of danger for the home side, who dominated the first 30 minutes. Inter were having difficulty picking up Meriem, who wasted a glorious chance to open the scoring on 26 minutes. Demetrius Ferreira's high ball was chested down beautifully by Drogba into the path of Meriem, but the midfield player blazed his shot high into the stand.
As Marseille's momentum steadily decreased, Inter demonstrated their threat on the counterattack and five minutes before the break, Vieri raced on to a perfectly-timed return pass from Martins and forced Fabien Barthez to palm his swerving cross-shot to safety.
The second half was barely under way when Marseille scored. Inter's defence lost concentration as Drogba raced on to a high pass through the middle and, after he had totally miscued a right-foot volley, the ball dropped kindly for the striker to lash a shot high past Fontana from close range.
Marseille took heart from the strike and should have doubled their lead on 53 minutes. Ferreira delivered a dangerous cross from the right to Batlles, unmarked free at the far post, but he headed wide with just the goalkeeper to beat. The Inter defence was under pressure again when Mathieu Flamini broke down the right and crossed low, but Drogba could only flick wide.
The home team looked certain to score on 65 minutes when Fabio Cannavaro's slip let in Meriem, but the Frenchman lost his footing after rounding Fontana and only succeeded in hitting the post under pressure. In control, Marseille continued to press, Habib Beye heading straight at Fontana from a Batlles free-kick, before Drogba flashed a shot past the far post seconds later.
Inter showed more urgency in the closing stages but made little impression on the home defence and it was Meriem who came closest to adding another goal with a swerving shot just over the bar. But his side had already done enough to win the match and travel to Italy next week with the upper hand.
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