- Frenchman has put his troubles at West Ham United behind him with the Ligue 1 club
- Partnership with Florian Thauvin has proven a key part of their run to the last four of Europa League
- Face Red Bull Salzburg in first leg of the semi-final on Thursday
Dmitri Payet factor proving a catalyst towards Europa League success for Marseille
It’s still best not to mention Dmitri Payet’s name around East London. The manner in which he engineered his departure from West Ham United 15 months ago still rankles.
Payet effectively went on strike to force through his transfer to Marseille - where he will contest a European semi-final on Thursday.
Make reference to Florian Thauvin in Newcastle, meanwhile, and you’ll hear a resigned sigh from supporters of Newcastle United.
The winger never settled on Tyneside having arrived there, aged 22, in the same summer Payet moved to England. Thauvin had cost nearly €20 million (Dh17.4m), quite a price for Newcastle at the time. He left with no goals from just 13 league matches in his 18 months.
In the blue of Marseille, the club Thauvin joined from Newcastle, this pair of maverick talents have found fulfilment, the love of a passionate support and reached the sort of heights Payet said he aspired to when he explained his rebellion in London.
Thursday’s Europa League semi-final, and a first leg at home to Red Bull Salzburg, puts Marseille 180 minutes from the sort of occasion they experience about a once a decade, although their ambitions extend towards more regular visits to the top floor of European football.
The club, Uefa Champions League winners in 1993, Uefa Cup finalists in 2004, carry the light tag of favourites to meet Arsenal or Atletico Madrid in Lyon in next month’s final.
Marseille’s attacking panache and the character they have shown through the knockout phase of the tournament justify that tag.
Athletic Bilbao were eliminated, with Marseille triumphing home and away in the last-16, and the comeback against RB Leipzig in the quarter-final has entered folklore at the Stade Velodrome.
Marseille trailed 2-0, with an away goal against them after two minutes of the second leg. They had hit back to 2-2 by the 10th minute, and by the time Payet finished off a slick exchange of passes with Thauvin to at last push the tie in their favour, after an hour of the home match, they were on a roll. The night finished 5-2 to Marseille.
Payet has three goals and three assists to his name in the Europa League in 2018. He is on form domestically, too, his unique gifts with a dead ball sharp, his right foot as incisive as his left and the captain’s armband a signal that the wantaway rebel of West Ham is now the true patron of Provence.
In the 3-2 win over Troyes that maintained Marseille’s challenge for a top-three finish in Ligue 1 in the middle of April, Payet exerted his authority over Thauvin, the two involved in a vexed exchange of views on the pitch.
“These things happen,” Payet, the side's captain, explained, “and they will happen again.” But the rapprochement after the row was public too.
The following weekend, Payet generously invited Thauvin to take a penalty awarded to Marseille in the 5-1 rout of Lille.
“I assumed he would take it,” said the winger. “It was a magnificent gesture, from a great player.”
Thauvin converted, for his 19th league goal of a season where he has allied cool finishing to his qualities of inventive one-on-one duelling and intelligent passing.
Thauvin, now 25, was called up to the last France squad named by Didier Deschamps, and his goals for Marseille have helped nourish his chances of seizing a place among his country’s abundant cadre of attacking talents at Russia for the World Cup.
There is a possibility, though, it may be at Payet’s expense. The 31-year-old, vital for the French at Euro 2016, was not picked by French head coach Didier Deschamps for the March friendlies, although he has been told ‘the door is not closed.’
A place in a European final for Marseille would certainly advance the World Cup cases for Payet and Thauvin.
Coach Rudi Garcia has emphasised the need for a strong first leg on Wednesday. The Velodrome has been Marseille’s alibi in the European campaign.
They have scored 21 goals at home in eight Europa League outings since the adventure began way back in July’s qualifying round. Only one visitor has kept a clean sheet in Marseille in Europe.
That was Salzburg, who took four points from OM in the group phase. Very few would have predicted the Austrian outsiders emerging as semi-finalists four months down the line for a re-match with a place in the final on May 16 in Lyon at stake.