Tough talking and kisses at the heart of Marseilles' revival

The unusual methods of Belgian coach Eric Gerets are starting to bear fruit for the floundering French giants. John Lichfield reports
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The Independent Football

At the Stade Vlodrome the hunger for results, and trophies, never ends, says Eric Gerets, the tough Belgian coach of Marseilles.

"The pressure is permanent because once this was a great team," he says.

For Marseilles, read Liverpool. The two clubs meet tonight to decide the last qualifying place in the Champions League Group A. If European football clubs could be twinned like cities, Marseilles and Liverpool would be obvious partners.

Each is the most successful club in its nation's history. Each represents a great port city, recovering from decline. Each city feels misunderstood, even mocked, by its own country. Each city lives for football. (Marseilles is united by it; Liverpool divided). Each club is desperate to recapture the success which once made them feared across Europe (Liverpool, admittedly, more than Marseilles, other than during a brief, corruption-tarnished period in the early 1990s).

Gerets, the former Belgium full-back, has hauled Marseilles from the ignominy of the relegation zone of Ligue 1, since he took over in September. Liverpool go into tonight's match on the low of a 3-1 defeat at Reading. Marseilles are riding the high of three victories in the last four league matches. They included a sweet 2-1 away win at Lyons, the club that have stolen what Marseilles supporters regard as their natural birthright as the dominant force in French football.

Gerets, 53, was a brutally effective full-back for Standard Lige and, briefly, Milan in the 1970s and 1980s. His managerial career in Belgium, Germany and in Turkey, with Galatasaray, has given him a reputation as an equally brutal manager. He insists that he has turned around Marseilles' talented but floundering players with a mixture of tactical adjustments, hugs and kisses.

Kisses? Asked whether his tough-talking might "inhibit" his young squad, he said yesterday: "When you've something to say to a player, you do it in private. You talk to him for two or three minutes. You give him a little kiss, You take him in your arms and you say: 'You're at Marseilles because you have talent. It is my job to make you a more complete player... You have to realise that I may be hard sometimes but I love you'."

Gerets has relegated the under-achieving former Liverpool striker, Djibril Ciss to the bench. His faith in the short, bull-like Senegalese striker, Mamadou Niang, 28, once a journeyman with Troyes and Strasbourg has been rewarded with five goals in five games.

Marseilles' brilliant, young home-town, midfielder, Samir Nasri, 20, has been hampered by injury, illness, then injury again. He is still struggling after damaging his ankle in an unlucky 2-1 defeat by Besiktas in the last group stage.

Nasri, born in the same uncompromising area of northern Marseilles as Zinedine Zidane, may be given a place on the bench tonight, just in case. Gerets says that he is not ready physically for such a big game but he is the only Marseilles player with the "magic" to be able to "pick out a striker in a crowd".

In Nasri's absence, Mathieu Valbuena, 23, a bit-part player before Gerets arrived, has been shifted from wing to midfield with intermittent success. Valbuena played his first European Champions League game at Anfield on 3 October, a few days after Gerets arrived at the Vlodrome.

He rewarded his new manager with a brilliant performance in midfield and a stunning shot from 20 yards which allowed Marseilles to claim a new title: the first French club ever to win at Anfield. Gerets says that he was just as astonished by that victory as the rest of Europe. He did not think that his new players had it in them. The size of his task became obvious the next weekend when Marseilles lost 1-0 to mediocre Saint Etienne.

Since then tough love and kisses seem to have done their job. Going forward, Gerets' Marseilles are capable of giving any team a fright. At the back, they often look nave.

More kisses needed, Monsieur Gerets.