Mark Atkinson

There may be one more round of matches to be played in this year’s Le Championnat but the main issue has been resolved – Marseille are champions.

Didier Deschamps’ side secured the title last midweek, defeating Rennes 3-1 at the Stade Velodrome. That result, coupled with nearest challenger Auxerre’s 2-1 defeat at Lyon, gave OM the league title and only their second trophy since 1993.

That stat raises a few eyebrows when dusted off and brought out, especially as both trophies were won this year. It’s almost impossible to imagine that a club of Marseille’s size and pedigree has gone the thick end of 17 years since winning silverware. They may have made the UEFA Cup final in 1999 and 2004, but on both occasions they lost out (Parma in ’99, Valencia in ’04). On the domestic front, the south coast side won Ligue 2 in 1995, but were denied promotion because of their match-fixing scandal in 1993: Marseille were told they had to spend two years outside Ligue 1. When they eventually climbed back into the top tier a year later, it was by virtue of coming second.

All that is now history, however. Marseille have been the best team in France this season by some distance. They won the Coupe de la Ligue against Bordeaux in March to lay those 17-year demons to rest and have not looked back since.

At Christmas, the title looked within Bordeaux’s grasp. Marseille were lagging behind Laurent Blanc’s side at the turn of the year and Deschamps had been criticised for creating a dysfunctional side. Since the start of the decade, they’ve been anything but.

Deschamps arrived at Marseille at the start of the season with a clear remit. He was told the title was a prime objective. Chairman Jean-Claude Dassier gave him a wad of cash unseen by his predecessor, Eric Gerets, who had seen his Marseille team lose out on the title the year before by a whisker to Bordeaux. Lucho Gonzalez was les phoceens’ marquee signing, procured from Porto for €18M, Eduard Cisse came home from Galatasaray, Fabrice Abriel, a tricky winger, was signed from Lorient, and Stephane M’Bia, a hulk of a midfielder from Rennes, was bought for €12M as Deschamps strengthened the engine room of his side. In too was Souleymane Diawara, once of Charlton Athletic, nabbed from Bordeaux, while Gabriel Heinze moved to Provence as the defence was bolstered. Fernando Morientes and Cyril Rool came in as back-up, and allied to an already potent strike-force, Marseille had the most formidable side, on paper, in the league,

It took time for Deschamps’ side to gel. He struggled to find his best formation, flitting between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3. The former Monaco boss couldn’t find the right balance in midfield either, while none of his centre-halves could partner Diawara – Vitorino Hilton, Julien Rodriguez and even Heinze looked poor. Up front, Mamadou Niang, Brandao, Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Valbuena scored goals, but as a thrilling 5-5 draw with Lyon proved, they had serious trouble keeping them out.

Deschamps’ mastery was shown after la treve. M’Bia, despite many protestations, was shuffled back to centre-half and became a revelation. The Cameroon international voiced on many occasions that he wanted to stay in midfield, but Deschamps stuck to his guns. M’Bia, for the second part of the season, was outstanding. When playing 4-3-3, Taye Taiwo, a left-back with a penchant for bombing forward and forgetting to defend, was sacrificed, much to the fans’ chagrin. Heinze, seen as more defensively capable by Deschamps, took his place, securing that flank. Taiwo was used in 4-4-2s or more attack-minded matches, his worth shown by a late penalty to sink Boulogne.

Perhaps Deschamps’ best work, however, was done up-top. Niang, so often Marseille’s talisman, missed three months of the season through injury, and with Bakary Kone at the African Nations Cup in January, much rested on Brandao’s shoulders. Until that point, the Brazilian had been a shadow of the player seen strutting his stuff at Shakhtar Donetsk. Deschamps showed faith though and was repaid, with Brandao netting important goals and leading the line well. The coach also got the two mercurial wingers in Valbuena and Ben Arfa to hit top gear. Ben Arfa, in particular, can be a sulky, sullen irritation, but Deschamps coaxed out his ability. In a 5-1 thrashing of Valenciennes that kick-started Marseille’s scintillating form in March, Ben Arfa was magical.

The best manager and the best team have won this year’s Le Championnat. Lyon, Auxerre, Lille, Bordeaux and Montpellier, so often in the mix for the title, were simply unable to keep up with the juggernaut as it hit top speed. After their 3-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain, there was only one team that looked capable of sustaining a title-winning run. That team was Marseille. They have waited a long time for their day in the sun. Deschamps and his men merit every second of it now.