Marseille are back on song but Bordeaux lack bodies
For Chelsea and Liverpool, the group stage of the Champions' League begins this week witha French connection; in Liverpool's case it is déjà vu, in Chelsea's something new.
Rafa Benitez's team have been drawn in Olympique Marseille's section for the second successive year, having experienced a bewildering pair of games against them last season. After suffering a rare European defeat at Anfield, they went to the hostile Vélodrome two months later needing a win to avoid elimination and duly romped in 4-0.
On Tuesday they return to France and, according to the former Marseille hero Chris Waddle, cannot expect such an easy night this time but should still be able to avoid an opening defeat. "A friend in Marseille who works at the club told me that win at Anfield was their best performance in the whole of last season," Waddle said. "I think it was Eric Gerets' first game as coach. People there are very impressed by him, he's got them disciplined and working as a unit and has the respect of the dressing room. They're still good technically and can pass the ball, even if there aren't the household names any more."
A couple of the more familiar ones have left since last season, when the club recovered from a bad start – Gerets' predecessor, Albert Emon, was sacked – to finish third in the French league.
The much sought-after Samir Nasri is now at Arsenal and Djibril Cissé encounters his old Liverpool mates these days as a Sunderland player. But Marseille did secure the highly regarded attacking midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa from the perennial champions Lyon, and France's new goalkeeper, Steve Mandanda.
Waddle, who now works as a pundit for Setanta and Radio Five Live, says: "Nasri is a loss, but they knew that was going to happen. Unfortunately the French league is not as strong as it was and Spain, Italy and England can lure their better players.
"When I was at Marseille [1989-92], we had a fantastic team, all internationals and top-class players, and we would go out and think we could score four, five and six. But those days are gone."
With team-mates such as Jean-Pierre Papin, Didier Deschamps and Basile Boli, Waddle won three successive French titles and played in the 1991 European Cup final defeat by Red Star Belgrade. But he was at Sheffield Wednesday when Marseille beat Milan in the final two years later, which was followed by the match-fixing and financial scandals that led to their president Bernard Tapie's imprisonment and Marseille's demotion.
Bordeaux, who visit Chelsea on Tuesday, had a strikingly similar run in the mid-1980s, winning three titles in four years but later being demoted after their wealthy president, Claude Bez, was convicted of fraud. The Girondins, as they are named after a political faction in the French revolution, could have been the team playing Liverpool at Heysel in the tragic European final of 1985, but after beating Juventus 2-0 in their semi-final first leg, they lost 3-0 in Turin. Last season they chased Lyon home domestically, finishing only four points behind in former Manchester United centre-half Laurent Blanc's first campaign as coach. Yoann Gourcuff, on loan from Milan, plays in midfield with fellow French international Abou Diarra and the Brazilian sharpshooter Geraldo Wendel.
Waddle feels Chelsea will be too strong, even in the absence of Michael Essien. "Bordeaux are well respected, always round about the top four, but they're another club who have difficulty holding on to their best players. The best they can hope for is to get them on three- or four-year contracts, then get a good fee for them to pay the bills.
"It's a lovely place to go and play, not an intimidating stadium like Paris or Marseille. In the Uefa Cup you'd think they had a chance of doing well, but in the Champions' League you have to think they'll be out of their depth.
"Football's funny and players are coming back this week from internationals, but I'd be very surprised if Chelsea don't get a very comfortable result."
As for his old club: "There's always a good atmosphere at the Vélodrome for a big game. Liverpool are not scoring many goals but they don't give much away either and I think they'll come away with some type of result. Realistically, if Marseille get a draw they'll be happy with that."
Chelsea v Bordeaux (ITV4)
Laurent Blanc made a good impression in his first season as coach of Bordeaux, runners-up to Lyon in the French championship. But even without Michael Essien Chelsea should be too good for them on Luiz Felipe Scolari's Champions' League debut.
Marseille v Liverpool (ITV1)
Liverpool, unconvincing in scraping through the qualifying round against Standard Liège, will be glad to have Steven Gerrard back after his groin operation. They will get a hot reception but can point to a remarkably easy 4-0 win on the same ground last November.
Manchester Utd v Villarreal (Sky Sports 2)
Two goalless draws when the teams met three years ago were costly for United, who finished bottom of the group – their worst Champions' League performance. Villarreal, beaten in the semi-finals by Arsenal that season, should field Robert Pires and the excellent holding midfielder Marcos Senna.
Celtic v Aalborg (SS Xtra)
A home game against the weakest team in Group E, coached by the former Scottish captain Bruce Rioch, offers Celtic the opportunity to underline their fine form at Parkhead, the basis of their success in reaching the knockout stages for two years running.
Dynamo Kiev v Arsenal (SS3)
Three times European Cup semi-finalists, Kiev are overshadowed these days by rivals Shakhtar Donetsk, and have none of the latter's money. Arsenal have twice lost in Kiev (1999 and 2003) but will be confident this time, especially playing there beforethe worst weather sets in.
Odds: 5-1 Chelsea; 11-2 Manchester Utd; 7-1 Internazionale, Barcelona; 8-1 Real Madrid; 9-1 Arsenal; 12-1 Liverpool; 16-1 Bayern Munich.
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