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African All Stars

Josh Maja's irrepressible form the litmus test of Marseille's title credentials

11:13 AM EST 12/7/19
Josh Maja
As fourth travel to take on second this weekend, the Nigeria international striker poses the biggest threat to the host's possible Ligue 1 ambitions

Preparation meeting opportunity. It is a combustible chemical reaction as old as time itself.

So when, during the warm-up for Bordeaux's Week 13 clash with Monaco, attacker Jimmy Briand pulled up with an injury, it fell to Josh Maja to stake his claim for a starting spot with Les Girondins.

Maja, who joined the club from Sunderland back in January, had to that point been limited to cameo appearances in Ligue 1; his sole start had come in the Coupe de La Ligue, where he scored in a no-frills 2-0 win over Dijon.

In the three games since Briand's misfortune, the Nigeria international has set about putting his imprint on the team, so much so that it is not immediately clear what manager Paulo Sousa will do when his first-choice striker returns from injury.

Just as importantly, Bordeaux have picked up seven points from those three games, in large part thanks to his haul of four goals and one assist. For context, that's as many as Briand managed in all of his 11 starts. If the wisdom of keeping a winning selection intact holds, Maja has done more than enough to continue to lead the line.

More than the number of them, it is the manner of the finishes that has been most impressive. Whereas one might expect a striker who has largely played second fiddle for much of the campaign to lack confidence or sharpness (or both), Maja has taken his goals with a degree of aplomb that suggests this is all too easy for him.

His ornate backheel from Aurelien Tchouameni's low cross to give Bordeaux the lead against Reims was one worthy to win any game, and his hat-trick last weekend against Nimes featured excellent movement and cocksure finishes both in one-on-one situations and from the edge of the penalty area.

Sure, the hapless Crocodiles are second from bottom in Ligue 1, and feature one of the division's weakest defences. It seemed embarrassingly easy for Maja, especially for his first, to burst through their backline time and again. When he was done amusing himself, he had the time and inclination to wet the beak of Nicolas de Preville, who cavorted through the bare veldt that used to be populated by Nimes defenders to round the goalkeeper and score.

However, the notion that the generosity of the opposition made Maja look good is shot down by the fact that Reims, against whom he scored the week prior, actually have the best defence in Ligue 1. Only Paris Saint-Germain have kept more clean sheets than their nine so far, and they also boast the lowest xG allowed in the league.

On both ends of the spectrum, Maja has brought his talent to bear on Ligue 1, but Sunday's meeting with high-flying Marseille is a very different challenge, with second going up against fourth at Stade Velodrome.

PSG and Monaco aside, no other side in the league has generated as much xG as l'OM, and manager Andre Villas-Boas has developed an adaptability in his approach that now appears to be reaping dividends.

Marseille sit five points off PSG at the top, and may represent the only realistic threat to a league procession for the Parisians.

In that sense, Maja could very well end up affecting the Ligue 1 title picture by ending any grand designs in the mind of Les Phoceens. Not bad for a player who left League One Sunderland in acrimonious circumstances during last season's winter transfer window, a move the 20-year-old from Lewisham insisted he had been reluctant to make.

"Given the right contract, I would have stayed," he revealed to the Sunderland Echo at the time. "I don’t think Sunderland were prepared to give me what I wanted.

"For me, it was important to make that move and play at a higher level."

It is a decision that is being vindicated thoroughly. For a player who was once perceived as not being decisive enough inside the box, Maja is starting to show the ruthlessness to go with his all-round game that only the highest levels can properly extract.