Tottenham vs Marseille: Arsenal cast-offs out to foil Spurs with familiar feel to Champions League return

·4-min read
Tottenham vs Marseille: Arsenal cast-offs out to foil Spurs with familiar feel to Champions League return

European nights at Tottenham are generally special, and their return to the Champions League tonight should have the added feel of a local derby.

Spurs’ first opponents in the competition since March 2020 are French side Marseille, whose squad is packed with players associated with the red half of north London.

Alexis Sanchez, Marseille’s most celebrated former Arsenal player, is suspended tonight, but among the antagonists Spurs fans will have to remember to boo are Nuno Tavares, Matteo Guendouzi and Sead Kolasinac, as well as former West Ham forward Dimitri Payet.

Igor Tudor’s cast of Premier League misfits also includes on loan Manchester United defender Eric Bailly and Jordan Veretout and Chancel Mbemba, formerly of Aston Villa and Newcastle, respectively.

If there is a theme to Tudor’s group, it is one of talented but unpredictable mavericks who have found a home at a club where chaos often reigns. Over the summer, Marseille head coach Jorge Sampaoli walked out, supposedly frustrated by the club’s transfer activity, and was replaced by the Croatian, a disciplinarian who was a team-mate of Antonio Conte at Juventus.

A switch to a back-three, which will match Conte’s system, and a new playing style has caused little disruption and, like Spurs, Marseille are unbeaten at the start of the season, with only Paris Saint-Germain’s superior goal difference keeping them from the top of Ligue 1.

Tudor’s side have been mean defensively and exciting going forward, although the suspended Sanchez will be missed, while Payet, who was initially dropped by the new coach, is an injury doubt tonight.

Spurs’ easiest group game on paper — Marseille came out of Pot 4 after finishing as runners-up in Ligue 1 —may be anything but. “Marseille are performing very well,” said Spurs skipper Hugo Lloris. “They have changed their style, their coach. It’s a team that will come to us to display their ambitions.”

Of particularly significance could be the battle at wing-back, where Tavares (left) has been transformed since moving to the south of France on loan in the summer.

The 22-year-old has scored three times in his five starts and faces an intriguing battle for supremacy with Emerson Royal or Matt Doherty.

Matteo Guendouzi is among the former Arsenal cohort currently thriving at Marseille (AFP via Getty Images)
Matteo Guendouzi is among the former Arsenal cohort currently thriving at Marseille (AFP via Getty Images)

On the opposite flank, Ivan Perisic is likely to be up against Jonathan Clauss, a late bloomer who has just broken into the France squad, aged 29.

Lloris, who began his career at hometown club Nice, the sometime rivals of Marseille, knows that the visitors have a rich European history, having twice reached the Champions League final, winning the competition in 1993, and finished as UEFA Cup/Europa League runners-up three times.

“[Nice-Marseille] is a derby in the south of France,” he said. “It’s a long time ago for me, but when you play in France, every time you face Marseille it’s always a big game. They are one of the biggest French clubs, especially in European history.

“It’s a special place. When you are French or you play for a French team, facing Marseille is always very special.”

For their part, Spurs are unrecognisable from their last game in this competition, a dispiriting 3-0 defeat to RB Leipzig, when Lucas Moura, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela led the line.

Jose Mourinho took a threadbare squad to Germany, but the question for Conte is how to manage his bolstered options, with Saturday’s visit to Manchester City looming and the head coach already complaining about his side’s schedule.

If there is a theme to Marseille, it is one of talented but unpredictable mavericks who have found a home at a club where chaos often reigns

Among Conte’s most pressing decisions is whether to save Heung-min Son for the weekend and continue with Richarlison in the front three, while Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will eventually need a rest during a run of seven games in 21 days.

Spurs will be expected to qualify from a group also including Sporting Lisbon and Eintracht Frankfurt, although Conte has been careful to temper expectations by saying they are unlikely to challenge the established super-clubs in the latter stages.

“I believe the club is going in the right direction with the help of Antonio Conte and his coaching staff,” said

Lloris. “But we know there is still a gap for improvement, and it demands a lot of effort and focus from all the players. We’re going to bridge the gap to the best teams in Europe and in England, but step by step. It’s important to be focused on our work everyday and ready to challenge any team.”