Marseille looks to Payet as race for 2nd place heats up

PARIS (AP) — Marseille is under pressure to hold onto second place in the French league and will need Dimitri Payet in his best form to secure automatic entry into next season’s Champions League.

The 35-year-old Payet is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, and is on course to beat his career record for most goals in a season.

As the race heats up for second spot behind Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille is...

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PARIS (AP) — Marseille is under pressure to hold onto second place in the French league and will need Dimitri Payet in his best form to secure automatic entry into next season’s Champions League.

The 35-year-old Payet is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, and is on course to beat his career record for most goals in a season.

As the race heats up for second spot behind Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille is only three points ahead of third-place Rennes and in-form Monaco. Those two clubs are separated only by goal difference, with Monaco hauling itself into Champions League contention on the back of a seven-game winning run.

Monaco has not looked back since dominating PSG 3-0 at home in March, and the mid-season hiring of coach Philippe Clement to replace Niko Kovac is paying off.

Monaco has scored 17 goals in its winning streak, which included a victory at Rennes, and striker Wissam Ben Yedder is tied for second with Rennes forward Martin Terrier in the scoring charts with 21 goals. They are three behind PSG’s Kylian Mbappe.

Monaco will play Friday at Lille, the French league champions last season. Marseille is at Lorient on Sunday. Rennes is at Nantes, but that game won’t be played until next Wednesday because Nantes faces Nice in the French Cup final on Saturday.

That gives Monaco and Marseille the chance to apply pressure on Rennes with victories. Although the Marseille’s squad will have to recover quickly to reset after playing Feyenoord on Thursday in the second leg of their Europa Conference League semifinal.

For Marseille, much depends on the form of Payet. Despite his advancing years, he has scored 12 goals — his best in a season for Marseille — and had nine assists.

With his ability to play as a false nine, or ghost into position as a deep-lying playmaker, Payet is a crucial component in coach Jorge Sampaoli’s 4-3-3 system.

In addition to his goals, Payet’s exceptional ability to hold the ball back to goal, the fact he almost never gives away possession, allied to his excellent accuracy on free kicks and corners, make him a constant menace for defenders.

“I play in a system that’s well defined around me. A lot of balls come my way. So for a No. 10 there’s nothing better than to organize things and be at the heart of the game,” Payet said. “I’m making the most of my last years as a player, which is why I’m enjoying it more.”

Although he reads the game quickly, Payet has never been a quick player in terms of speed, so he has refined his game even more with age.

“Football today is much faster and more athletic. What’s changed in my game since Jorge Sampaoli arrived is my positioning,” Payet explained. “When you start losing speed and explosiveness, you can still keep up and make a difference if you’re well positioned between the lines and able to find space.”

But when Payet is not at his best, like in the 3-0 home loss to Lyon last Sunday, Marseille struggles more.

If the former France international needs any extra motivation for the final stretch, he is one behind his best career tally for league goals in a season — he netted 13 for Saint-Etienne in 2010-11.

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