By Robin Bairner | French Football Editor
Brandao received the acclaim of the Marseille fans on Tuesday night as he sneakily latched onto Steve Mandanda’s hopeful punt forward in stoppage time to strike the blow that sent les Phoceens into the Champions League quarter-finals. It was not, however, the Brazilian who acted as the real catalyst for the French club's success.
Instead, OM should look to Mandanda and Mathieu Valbuena as the real heroes of their 1-2 defeat at San Siro, which manifested itself as a victory on away goals after both sides scored twice over the course of two legs.
Although Marseille’s defence largely held firm, had it not been for the work of their goalkeeper in the early stages of the match, they might have crumbled to defeat. Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito should have done more to put Inter ahead from simple chances in the first half, but Mandanda saved on both occasions, with his reflex block from the Argentine particularly deserving of commendation.
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Otherwise, he offered Inter little prospect of a goal, commanding his area with the kind of authority that Marseille fans have increasingly grown used to seeing from a shot-stopper who has steadily ironed out any imperfections in his game over the last two years.
Indeed, such has been the level of consistent excellence achieved by the goalkeeper, he’s now a serious challenge for Hugo Lloris’ position as France No.1, although his arrival at top form probably comes too late to earn the gloves for Euro 2012.
Sadly for Marseille, their goalkeeping inspiration will be banned for the first-leg of the quarter-final as he was dismissed late on at San Siro, forcing OM to rely on Gennaro Bracigliano; a journeyman on the Ligue 1 scene, but a player untested at the very highest level.
If Mandanda is missing for Marseille’s next European adventure, one man who is certain to be present – barring any unforeseen injury troubles – is Valbuena, who confirmed his importance to OM on Tuesday night with a mature and intelligent showing.
The impish player was the fulcrum of OM’s attack for 75 minutes before being withdrawn prematurely, presumably because of a lack of match fitness caused by a recent injury.
He seemed omnipresent for the French side, drifting into space constantly, playing passes quickly and incisively, relieving the pressure from the defence and building a platform from which his side could attack.
While Sneijder struggled to get a look in for the Nerazzurri, he should have been watching the sprightly performance of the opposing playmaker, who looked fit for any side in the world on such a slick showing.
After shouldering a great weight of expectation on his shoulders at San Siro, the 27-year-old late bloomer will be even more vital for Marseille in the quarter-finals, where his guile and enthusiasm will be central to the French club’s attacking threat.
He's already shown his match-winning capabilities in Europe this season, sending Marseille into the knockout stages courtesy of a fine solo effort against Dortmund, which came at a clutch moment just when the French club seemed crashing out of the groups.
Deschamps knows as well as anyone that winning the Champions League with OM as a coach 19 years after doing so as a player is a seemingly impossible task, but at least with world-class talent such as Mandanda and Valbuena, his players have the right to dream for at least a few weeks more.
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