Many will consider Manchester United FC favourites to defeat Olympique de Marseille on Wednesday – and understandably so. The English club have lifted the trophy twice in the last 12 years and compete regularly in the latter stages.
OM have struggled over the same period. Indeed, since William Gallas fired them to victory over United in October 1999, the nine-time French title winners have not once reached the competition's knockout stages. Until this season that is. Marseille's fortunes have changed dramatically in recent times, and that is why United fans should be wary. Simply put, the Didier Deschamps factor must be taken into consideration.
One of the most successful figures in the modern era, Deschamps is a born winner. As well as captaining Les Bleus to world and European glory, he lifted the UEFA Champions League as OM skipper in 1993 and appeared in three more finals. 'Dédé' has carried his Midas touch into the dugout too, masterminding AS Monaco FC's stunning run to the 2004 UEFA Champions League final before taking Juventus to promotion from Serie B.
The prodigal son's return to the Stade Vélodrome in 2009 was greeted with inevitable optimism yet few could have imagined his impact would be so great and so immediate. After 17 years without a trophy, OM clinched a domestic double last term. The one disappointment came in Europe, where Marseille fell again in the group stage. Last summer, Deschamps made it clear that progressing this season would be a priority.
The 42-year-old is extremely demanding and he invariably gets his way. After the 2-1 win against FC Girondins de Bordeaux last month, he was typically reflective, suggesting his side "should have controlled the latter stages better". The bar has been raised at Marseille and the ruthless manner in which OM qualified for the UEFA Champions League last 16 – winning their last four matches without conceding – highlights the progress that has been made.
The question now is can the Mediterranean club emulate the heroics of Deschamps' Monaco? Clearly it will not be easy but Deschamps has always relished a challenge. His current team does not have the attacking flair of the Monaco of Fernando Morientes and Ludovic Giuly, but Marseille possess different qualities.
For a start, they will have a raucous 60,000 crowd roaring them on. United should expect an intimidating atmosphere but also an extremely physical battle. Stéphane Mbia, Souleymane Diawara, Rod Fanni and ex-United player Gabriel Heinze form a powerful defensive unit, Édouard Cissé and André Ayew snap into tackles, while Brandão and André-Pierre Gignac are bulldozers in attack.
With Lucho González supplying the subtlety in midfield, OM are capable of competing with, and possibly even beating, the very best. United have been warned: this particular OM side, moulded in the image of their fiercely competitive coach, will be anything but a pushover.
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