Dimitri Payet

AP Photo/Claude Paris, File

Marseille’s ‘Champions Project’ in tatters

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PARIS (AP) Ridiculous Project.

Arrogant Project.

Fiasco Project.

Deficient Project.

Defeat Project.

These were some of the slogans displayed by Marseille fans last weekend at Stade Velodrome, mocking the “Champions Project” plan of American owner Frank McCourt, who aimed to return the club back to the summit of French soccer and among the European elite.

[ MORE: Sarri’s job in jeopardy? ]

Instead, in front of those poster-holding fans, former European champion Marseille was humiliated by Lyon 3-0 at home.

Ahead of the trip to Toulouse on Saturday, Marseille is seven points behind fourth-placed Saint-Etienne. With only two rounds left in Ligue 1, it means the club won’t even qualify for the Europa League.

Two and a half years after McCourt took over, the southern side has not lived up to expectations, and coach Rudi Garcia’s future is hanging in the balance after he failed to find the right balance in a squad featuring some brilliant individuals.

Marseille, which made it to the 2018 Europa League final but earned only one point in the group stage this season, has 13 defeats in 36 matches in the French league, has conceded 50 goals – its worst total in more than 30 years – and lost all of its matchups against the top three teams.

Constant tinkering with the lineup – Garcia fielded 41 different starting XIs in 44 matches in all competitions – to find a winning combo contributed to Marseille going backward, in sharp contrast to the club’s motto of “Straight to Goal.”

“There is no point looking for excuses,” World Cup winner Florian Thauvin said last month after a loss in Bordeaux. “We should stop fooling ourselves. We did not make a good season. And even if we qualified for the Champions League, what could we achieve? Every year it’s the same thing. We don’t win the games we need, we make too many mistakes.”

Marseille Ultras supporters, who play a major role in the running of the club, have had enough, too, and are asking for Garcia’s firing. They are also unhappy with club president Jacques Henri Eyraud, who appointed the coach when McCourt, the former Los Angeles Dodgers owner, launched his project of making Marseille great again, then extended Garcia’s deal to 2021.

“It’s one of the most difficult seasons of my career,” says Garcia, who seems under no illusion his time is up at the club. “But it’s part of my experience, and I’m sure I will use it in the future.”

Upon arrival at the buoyant Mediterranean city, McCourt pledged to revive Marseille by investing 200 million euros ($210 million) over four years. Large amounts of cash have been spent on Mario Balotelli, Valere Germain, and Brazil midfielder Luiz Gustavo. Marseille’s squad also features Lucas Ocampos, Kevin Strootman, Dimitri Payet, and Florian Thauvin, but Garcia has failed to make them gel as a team.

Thauvin has appeared unconcerned in recent weeks, and has not scored in the league in more than two months. He has repeatedly said his main goal in club football is to play the Champions League and appears bound for a transfer this summer.

Balotelli is not expected to stay either, but Marseille could struggle to find credible replacements as it remains closely monitored by UEFA in regard to financial fair play rules, and might not be allowed to spend as much as it wants.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

West Ham block Arnautovic exit

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West Ham United and Marko Arnautovic are embroiled in a very public and rather ugly transfer battle.

After a bid of over $45 million was reportedly tabled by an unnamed Chinese Super League club Wednesday (believed to be reigning CSL champs Shanghai SIPG) for West Ham’s star striker, Arnautovic’s agent and brother has said he wants to leave the Hammers.

Danijel Arnautovic released the following statement to talkSPORT in the UK.

“West Ham bought Marko for peanuts. They paid £20million for him, which is nothing in the current market. They bought him to keep them in the Premier League last season and he did that. He took every award at the club; best player, signing of the season and the players’ award. Now West Ham have a fantastic offer. It is close to double what they paid for him. He wants to go to a new market and challenge for titles. This is what he wants. It is his great desire that West Ham accept the offer from China.”

The Hammers responded to the claims with this brief, and rather curt, statement:

Your move, Marko…

Arnautovic, 29, is contracted to West Ham until the summer of 2022 and if the Hammers do not want to sell him then this is a very tough situation to sort out. It is almost a case of deja vu for the Hammers when you think about the situation they had with Dimitri Payet just over two years ago.

Reports suggest Arnautovic will double his wages to $255,000 per week if he moves to China and given his rather lavish lifestyle off the pitch, that extra cash will come in handy in the long run…

The Austrian has been West Ham’s best player by a country mile since joining from Stoke in the summer of 2017, scoring 18 goals in 46 Premier League games and almost single-handedly keeping them in the PL last season. He played a starring role as a lone striker under David Moyes in the second half of the 2017-18 campaign and despite a few injuries he has continued that form into this season under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Arnautovic has a reputation as a trouble maker and a volatile character when things aren’t going his way and it will be intriguing to see how his performances on the pitch play out, despite his brother going on to say “he will give 100 per cent for West Ham” as long as he is at the club. He added that he hopes the Hammers fans understand that “things move on” in sport, but if he wants the supporters to believe that Arnautovic’s main motive for this move is to challenge for titles then he will lose plenty of respect from West Ham’s fans right away.

Their leading goalscorer this season reacted rather angrily towards Pellegrini after being subbed off during West Ham’s 2-0 FA Cup third round win against Birmingham City last weekend (he scored the opener) and the former Inter Milan star was perhaps preempting this possible January exit with his actions.

All of this comes just when it looked like West Ham had figured things out with their squad as Pellegrini had bought wisely in defense this summer, locked Declan Rice down to a new long-term deal and club-record signing Felipe Anderson was purring in support of Arnautovic in attack.

Many will simply say: ‘this is what we warned you about when you signed Arnautovic.’

Europa League: Chelsea rolls, Lazio tops Marseille, Milan falls

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The Europa League returned on Thursday for Group Stage matchday 3 and moves were made around the groups from top to bottom.

There were two Premier League teams in play as Arsenal and Chelsea both triumphed in their contests. The Gunners had the tougher task on the road in Portugal against Sporting CP, and came away with all three points thanks to Danny Welbeck‘s 77th minute goal. Arsenal was the better side throughout the match and was rewarded 13 minutes from time on the break to earn its 11th straight win across all competitions.

[ FULL RECAP: Arsenal tops Sporting CP 1-0 ]

Chelsea, meanwhile, also picked up an important win, defeating BATE Borisov 3-1 behind a hat-trick from Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Making just his second start of the season – both in Europa League play – the 22-year-old was sensational, scoring his first two goals both inside the opening 10 minutes, and capping things off in the second half. His first was hit with authority just two minutes into the game, showing up unmarked in the box near the penalty spot and crashing Davide Zappacosta‘s cross into the far corner.

For the second, he poked in a corner in the 8th minute, beating Olivier Giroud to the ball to put a wry smile on his teammate’s face. Just before the hour mark, Loftus-Cheek completed the milestone with the best of the three, a low whipped shot tucked inside the far post.

The win moves Chelsea further clear at the top of the table with nine points, six clear of anyone else as all three other teams are level with three points each.

French side Marseille slumped to a 3-1 defeat to Serie A contenders Lazio as the visitors at the Orange Velodrome made the most of their chances, while the hosts did not. Lazio got off to a great start as Brazilian defender Wallace rose highest to meet a corner and head it into the back of the net just 10 minutes into the match. In the second half, Lazio doubled its lead on the hour mark with Felipe Cacideo there to finish off an absolutely delicious through-ball by Ciro Immobile. Dimitri Payet brought Marseille back with just four minutes to go with a wonderful free-kick, but it wasn’t enough as Adam Marusic finalized the scoreline with an outstanding finish.

Sevilla obliterated Turkish side Akhisar Belediyespor 6-0 on goals from five different finishers plus an own-goal to round things off.

AC Milan fell at home to Real Betis thanks to Giovani Lo Celso’s incredible left-footed curler for a 2-1 victory. The Argentinian is on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, and has been a wonderful addition to the Betis midfield. The Spanish side now leads Group F after its second victory in three matches.

The bevy of incredible goals continued as Ukranian side Dynamo Kiev went to France and topped Stade Rennais 2-1. Tomasz Kedziora ripped a rocket to give Kiev the early lead, and while Rennais would equalize just before halftime, the visitors would earn all three points in the 89th minute despite being reduced to 10 men just minutes before.

German side RB Leipzig topped Brendan Rodgers and Celtic 2-0 in Leipzig. Both goals were scored just four minutes apart soon after the half-hour mark. Celtic somehow allowed a cross to skip by 3 defenders and find Matheus Cunha with space to turn and shoot, opening the scoring in the 31st minute. Four minutes later, Bruma pounced on a loose ball in the box to double the lead and finish things off.

Bayer Leverkusen’s struggles continued as they fell 3-2 on the road at FC Zurich. The German side has just one win since September 26, coming over Cypriot club AEK Larnaca. Karim Belrabi scored a four-minute brace out of halftime to give his side the lead, but they collapsed and let Stephen Odey leak behind the defense on 78th minute breakaway for the winner.

Full results

Chelsea 3-1 BATE Borisov
Sporting CP 0-1 Arsenal
Marseille 1-3 Lazio
Sevilla 6-0 Akhisar Belediyespor
Stade Rennais 1-2 Dynamo Kiev
Villareal 5-0 Rapid Vienna
RB Leipzig 2-0 Celtic
FC Zurich 3-2 Bayer Leverkusen
Anderlecht 2-2 Fenerbahce
Rangers 0-0 Spartak Moscow
Eintracht Frankfurt 2-0 Apollon Limassol
Besiktas 2-4 Racing Genk
F91 Dudelange 0-2 Olympiakos
Zenit St. Petersburg 2-1 Bordeaux
FC Spartak Trnava 1-2 Dinamo Zagreb
FK Qarabag 0-1 Vorskla
FC Salzburg 3-0 Rosenborg
FC Copenhagen 0-1 Slavia Prague
AEK Larnaca 1-1 Ludogorets Razgrad
Sarpsborg FK 1-1 Malmo FF
PAOK Salonika 0-2 Vidi

Europa League Wrap: Chelsea, Arsenal, Milan all win, Celtic loses in Austria

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It was a packed day of Europa League action, with more than five hours of coverage. Let’s summarize what we learned after Matchday 2.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]


Chelsea 1-0 Vidi FC

Alvaro Morata finally broke his goal duck, scoring for the first time in six weeks as Chelsea overcame Vidi FC, 1-0 at Stamford Bridge.

Morata’s clinical finish, stabbing a strike home at the near post off a Willian header, was thanks to a wonderful cross into the box by Cesc Fabregas and creative wide play from substitutes Ross Barkley and Eden Hazard. The Chelsea pair drew four defenders out of the box, opening space for both Willian and Morata.

With the win, Chelsea sits at the top of Group  L with six points from two matches.


Apollon Limassol 2-2 Marseille

Emilio Zelaya’s stoppage time chip canceled out a 2-0 lead by Marseille on the road as Limassol secured a massive point in the Europa League. The 2-2 result came in spite of a pair of terrific Marseille goals, first from Dimitri Payet on a maze-like run and second from former Brazil international Luiz Gustavo.


Red Bull Salzburg 3-1 Celtic

Despite a second-minute goal, Red Bull Salzburg emerged victorious after 90 minutes over Celtic. Israeli international Munas Dabbur scored twice for the hosts in the second half, canceling out Odsonne Edouard’s solo goal just over 90 seconds into the match. With the defeat, Celtic move into third place, tied with RB Leipzig on three points but below the German club on goal differential.

Scoreboard

Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 AEK Larnaca

Zurich 1-0 Ludogorets

Rosenborg 1-3 RB Leipzig

Red Bull Salzburg 3-1 Celtic

Bordeaux 1-2 FC Copenhagen

FC Zenit 1-0 Slavia Prague

Anderlecht 0-2 Dinamo Zagreb

Fenerbahce 2-0 Spartak Trnava

Qarabag 0-3 Arsenal

Vorskla 1-2 Sporting Lisbon

Milan 3-1 Olympiacos

Betis 3-0 Dudelange

Rangers 3-1 Rapid Wien

Spartak Moscow 3-3 Villarreal

Apollon Limassol 2-2 Marseille

Eintracht Frankfurt 4-1 Lazio

Malmo 2-0 Besiktas

Sarpsborg 3-1 Genk

Krasnodar 2-1 Sevilla [Game-Winning Bicycle Kick]

Standard Liege 2-1 Akhisarspor

Astana 2-0 Rennes

Jablonec 2-2 Dynamo Kiev

BATE 1-4 PAOK

Chelsea 1-0 Vidi FC

VAR paves way for Marseille’s 4-0 victory in season opener

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PARIS (AP) Marseille crushed Toulouse 4-0 on Friday as the French league season opened with a video assistant refereeing (VAR) decision leading to the first goal.

Attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet scored in each half, with his penalty on the stroke of halftime awarded after a video review. Striker Valere Germain added a third goal, while winger Florian Thauvin struck two minutes into injury time.

[ RECAP: Man Utd 2-1 Leicester City ]

Alerted by VAR officials that defender Kelvin Amian had blocked a cross with his hand, Ruddy Buquet checked the images. Having initially signaled a corner, the referee changed his mind and pointed to the spot.

Payet, who missed France’s World Cup title victory last month after being injured in the Europa League final, sent goalkeeper Baptiste Reynet the wrong way.

He netted again in the 62nd minute with a neat volley after Reynet had blocked Bouna Sarr’s angled shot.

“The ball came to me quickly, I just tried to guide it in,” Payet told Canal Plus television. “The end of last season was quite hard for me … so I just want to enjoy myself and start the season well.”

Payet completely controlled the game and sent Germain clean through with a defense-splitting pass in the 75th minute but Reynet saved well.

Payet got an ovation from the Stade Velodrome crowd when he was replaced by Thauvin – a member of France’s World Cup squad – in the 82nd minute.

Germain then expertly controlled midfielder Morgan Sanson’s pass and curled the ball past Reynet in the 89th minute before Thauvin skillfully flicked the ball up with his heel and slotted in from close range to complete the rout.

Marseille finished fourth last season and missed out on a Champions League playoff spot by one point.

Jerome Pugmire is at http://www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire