Succeeding as coach of Olympique de Marseille has proved one of the most difficult jobs in football in recent times. Alain Perrin looked to have discovered the secret when he guided the sleeping Mediterranean giants to second place in Ligue 1 in 2002/03, then strengthened the side by signing a powerful striker named Didier Drogba. However, a harrowing 4-2 defeat by Real Madrid CF in the UEFA Champions League in September 2003 sparked a sudden, unexpected decline, and Perrin was ousted just months later.
Though Marseille reached the UEFA Cup final that same year, and Perrin found work with Al-Aïn in the United Arab Emirates and Portsmouth FC in England, neither truly recovered from that turbulent period. Until this season. On Saturday, Marseille have the opportunity to end a 14-year trophy drought by winning the Coupe de France, but standing in their way is an FC Sochaux Montbéliard side rejuvenated since Perrin's arrival a year ago. Having finished 15th last term, Sochaux were expected to struggle again, yet with two league games to play they remain in contention for European qualification on two fronts. "Even I wasn't expecting such a positive campaign," Perrin told uefa.com. "My first priority was to avoid relegation - I wasn't thinking about winning trophies."
Guiding Sochaux to their first Coupe de France success since 1933 would cap an exceptional 12 months, though Perrin was issued a stern warning at Stade Vélodrome two weeks ago as Franck Ribéry, Samir Nasri and Djibril Cissé inspired an emphatic 4-2 home win. Indeed, the former ES Troyes Aube Champagne coach has been so busy this week working out how to stop Marseille's in-form attack he has barely had time for sentimentality. "Coming up against one of my former teams changes nothing in terms of preparation," he said. "I have good memories of my time at Marseille and it'll be nice to see some old friends, but this is a big day for Sochaux. We'll need to be at our best because Marseille are scoring freely and they have more big-match experience than we do."
Yet the side from Franche-Comté have been punching above their weight all year. Paris Saint-Germain FC, FC Girondins de Bordeaux and Marseille were all victims early on in the campaign as Perrin's resurgent team entered the winter break third in the standings despite losing their front two Araujo Ilan and Jérémy Menez in the summer. "Sochaux have sold a lot of important players in recent years," Perrin, 50, said. "The squad was thin when I arrived and I needed several new players." Perrin scoured Europe for bargains and enjoyed considerable success. Algerian playmaker Karim Ziani, whom he knew from his time at Troyes, has proved one of the finds of the season, veteran Jérôme Leroy has injected authority and quality in midfield, while Anthony Le Tallec, Alvaro Santos, Valter Birsa and January-recruit Sébastien Grax offer extensive attacking options.
Perhaps Perrin's most significant coup, however, was luring Jérémie Brechet back to France from Real Sociedad de Fútbol. The ex-Olympique Lyonnais defender has excelled as captain, with former skipper Mickaël Isabey underlining the spirit at Stade Bonal by displaying an exemplary attitude despite losing his status as an automatic starter. "The arrival of so many new faces has given the club a fresh feel and helped everybody forget about the disappointment of last season," Perrin said. "But while the new players have been important, I'm grateful to the older guys like Isabey, [Romain] Pitau, [Rabiu] Afolabi and [Teddy] Richert who have risen to challenge."
If the heady, title-winning days of the 1930s still seem a long way off, Les Lionceaux are unquestionably moving in the right direction. "Alain Perrin has struck a balance between bright, young talent and experienced players," enthused club president Jean-Claude Plessis. "He's a good man-manager and has succeeded in making the club more ambitious without losing the family atmosphere."
'You need luck'
Sochaux may be grateful to their coach, but the feeling is mutual. Regarded as one of France's leading tacticians after guiding Troyes from amateur football to Ligue 1 and the UEFA Cup, Perrin's reputation suffered after brief and unsuccessful spells with Al-Aïn and Portsmouth. However, any suggestion that his powers may be on the wane has been dispelled this term. "I've enjoyed coaching again in my homeland and not having to worry about the language barrier," he said. "I don't regret moving abroad but as a coach you always need some luck and not a lot went my way. If I'd enjoyed as much luck at Portsmouth as I've had at Sochaux, I might still be working in England today." Sochaux fans will be hoping that fortune shines favourably on Perrin again at the Stade de France.
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