PARIS (AP) — Stopping Kylian Mbappe is crucial to Marseille’s chances at league leader Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday as it pushes for second place and automatic qualification for the Champions League.
With seven games remaining Marseille has a three-point lead over third-place Rennes, which can move into second on goal difference by beating sixth-place Monaco at home on Friday.
Mbappe is the league’s best player and leads on two fronts with 20 goals and 14 assists — one assist more than teammate Lionel Messi. Neymar is back in goal-scoring form, too, with five in two games.
Overall this season, Mbappe has 31 goals and 18 assists in 39 games.
Containing the France forward is difficult enough for Marseille. Even more so with tired legs three days after a Europa Conference League quarterfinal match in Greece and against a fully rested PSG.
Since being knocked out of the Champions League in humiliating fashion by Real Madrid last month, Mbappe and Neymar have each scored six goals in four league games.
Marseille was playing PAOK Thessaloniki later Thursday and with only a 2-1 lead from the home leg, coach Jorge Sampaoli did not have the luxury of resting key players like Dimitri Payet, holding midfielder Matteo Guendouzi or central defender William Saliba.
Sampaoli will also be relying heavily on Guendouzi and Saliba to contain Mbappe when the bitter club rivals meet again after a 0-0 draw in October.
Along with Payet, they have been Marseille’s most consistent players this season and have broken into the France team. Saliba and Guendouzi played in recent friendly wins against Ivory Coast and South Africa, with Mbappe setting up Guendouzi’s late goal in a 5-0 win against Bafana Bafana.
Guendouzi will be staying close to Mbappe again, this time to stop his devastating runs from deep and prevent him using his speed to run at Saliba.
Sampaoli thinks they are up to the task.
“They have played with authority, they’ve improved and they keep on improving. We’re really benefiting (and) it’s important for us to have young players of this standard,” Sampaoli said. “They will fight for a World Cup place, even though they’re very young and in a (France) squad that’s difficult to break into.”
Guendouzi, who turned 23 on Thursday, is a versatile midfielder and equally adept on the left or the right in Sampaoli’s 4-3-3 formation.
Marseille brought in Guendouzi on loan from Premier League club Arsenal with an option to buy at the end of the season. He was signed up at Arsenal by former PSG coach Unai Emery in 2018. Guendouzi impressed in spells in north London but lost his place and was loaned out last season to German club Hertha Berlin.
He netted twice for Hertha and has three league goals so far for Marseille, showing that he’s finally adding a finishing touch to go with his high-octane running and slick passing. In his previous 112 games — for Arsenal and Lorient combined — he scored only once.
“It’s true that I’m in good form and I’m making more of a difference,” Guendouzi said. “I have to keep going.”
The 21-year-old Saliba burst onto the scene at 17 with Saint-Etienne and earned a high-profile move to Arsenal three years ago for a reported fee of $35 million.
He crossed paths with Guendouzi there but never played for the Premier League club and was loaned back to Saint-Etienne, then Nice last season and Marseille this term — where he has played in 30 league games.
It is perhaps no coincidence that his return to form has helped Marseille concede only 29 goals — the same number as PSG — and second only to Nice’s league-best 27.
But stopping Mbappe in such rampant form, with Neymar and Messi backing the France star up, is arguably Saliba’s biggest challenge yet.
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