PARIS (AP) — Marseille is on a five-game winning run and well poised to put pressure on Lens in the race for second place in the French league.
With Paris Saint-Germain comfortably leading the league, the more realistic ambition for Marseille is to finish second and qualify automatically for next season's Champions League.
The goals are flowing for Marseille with 10 scored in the past three matches, while the defense looks stable and the midfield has been boosted by the arrival of Ruslan Malinovskyi.
The Ukrainian joined on loan from Atalanta until the end of the season with an option to make the move permanent, and made his debut in Wednesday’s 2-0 win at Troyes.
The 29-year-old Malinovsky brings strong experience, having played 115 games in Italy’s top flight and 51 times for Ukraine. A set-piece specialist, he can shoot with both feet and has a decent scoring record, netting 30 goals for Atalanta in Serie A.
Marseille is in third place and lurking two points behind Lens with two home matches coming up, starting with sixth-place Lorient at home on Saturday. Lorient boasts Nigeria striker Terem Moffi in attack, and he is tied with PSG's Neymar on 11 goals so far — just two less than leading scorer Kylian Mbappé.
After a blip in October, when Marseille lost three straight games, coach Igor Tudor’s side has not lost since and the fans are backing the team.
“We’re working hard and it’s paying off,” midfielder Valentin Rongier said. “The fans are great, each time we play away from home we’re supported and we know we can count of them.”
This unity is not to be taken lightly at Marseille, the only French club to win the Champions League and where demands are perpetually high and players are constantly under pressure. Sometimes excessively so, given that the club won the last of its nine league titles in 2010 under Didier Deschamps, who has coached France since 2012.
Speaking after the Troyes victory, Marseille midfielder Jordan Veretout said “we must not lose” matches and he's probably right, because Lens does not throw points away.
Lens has lost only once and is the only club to have beaten PSG this season.
Lens is on an eight-game unbeaten run and faces 18th-place Auxerre on Saturday. The northern side, which also has extremely passionate fans, plays an expansive, high-octane game and has a slightly better defensive record than Marseille.
But Tudor, who was heavily criticized by Marseille's scrutinizing fans before the season and written off again after October's defeats, seems to have found the right balance.
Former France playmaker Dimitri Payet is back in form and Malinovskyi could prove a key addition to midfield. But it's crucial that Tudor keeps his midfield together and that the club does not sell Mattéo Guendouzi.
Premier League club Aston Villa, which is coached by Unai Emery, is reportedly keen on signing Guendouzi — who previously played under Emery when he was the Arsenal coach.
The hard-working and energetic Guendouzi is very popular with Marseille's fans and it would send a negative message to them if the club sold him during January's transfer window.
Lionel Messi, Neymar and Mbappé are set to play together again in attack on Sunday when PSG travels to play fourth-place Rennes — which has been a difficult away match for PSG in recent seasons.
But Rennes has lost two of its past three matches and is weakened by an injury to forward Martin Terrier, the club's top scorer with 21 goals last season.
Sunday's game would be the first time Messi and Mbappé are on the same field since being on opposing sides in the World Cup final on Dec. 18 — when they scored a combined five goals before Argentina beat France on penalties.
Messi scored on his return for PSG on Wednesday night against Angers, with Mbappé rested.
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Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press