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One down for Marseille in semifinals

Two surprises marked the first leg of the semifinals of the French Pro A league. Half a surprise in Nice, who were defeated by Montpellier (9-11), and a much larger and unexpected one in Strasbourg, where the home team beat Marseille (8- 7), who suffered their first loss of the season at the worst time. That promises the return legs to be particularly tense and disputed next Saturday.

To parody the famous slogan that a well-known Japanese brand declined in its advertising in the past, one could write "fans dreamed about it, Strasbourg did it." Strasbourg is a team currently in (big) shape, as the Alsatians finished the regular phase with two particularly convincing results against Montpellier (6-6) and Nice (9-3). It should also be recalled that in late March, Strasbourg had snatched a deserved draw in Marseille (9-9). From their side, the Provencal players finished the regular phase coasting, with many turnovers in their roster, trying several young players, also nursing injuries of some other players. Even winning, Marseille had hardly been irresistible against Lille (14-16) and Saint-Jean d'Angély (9-16). The momentum thus seemed for Strasbourg. Still, with its armada counting no fewer than ten international players, Marseille remained the logical favourite in this semifinal.

From the kickoff though, it was clear that the match would be physical, intense, harsh, clenching for the players as much as for the numerous fans in the stands (around 700). After two minutes Igor Racunica (pictured) opened the scoring on the thirty-second buzzer (1-0). Alexandre Camarasa immediately answered with a beautiful goal in centre-forward position, also in the buzzer! The oppressive defences on both sides of the field not helping to develop a game of attack, one had to wait a penalty scored by Nikola Sutic to see Strasbourg completing the first period in the lead (2-1). With Alexandre Camarasa again (3 goals in the match), Mathias Olivon and Enzo Khasz, Marseille equalised at mid-match (4-4). Was that the result of Marseille’s change of defence, choosing a ”full-time press” ? In any case, defences were still relentless, leaving very little space for attackers to express themselves, and when an opportunity occurred both goalkeepers showed their talent. All along this season, Strasbourg could count on a particularly effective trio. Once again, salvation came from Igor Racunica, Marko Bratic and Nikola Sutic (8 goals together), the two latter digging the first real difference in this match (7-5, 23rd minute), quickly reduced by Thibault Simon (7-6, third period). If the third period has reached a peak of intensity, exhaustion was beginning to weigh on both teams. Shoots on poles, offensive fouls, balls losses multiply. The fourth and last act promised to be boiling-hot, and it was. With a shot in an impossible angle on man up, the inevitable Marko Bratic gave the advantage to the Alsatians (8-6, 27th minute). Thirty seconds were enough for Igor Kovacevic to narrow the gap (8-7). The end of this fantastic match was absolutely sweltering, including one last shot of Alexandre Camarasa on the bar, but Strasbourg preserved its victory (8-7).

After such a (correct) fight, Sébastien Berenguel, Strasbourg’s coach, was not really satisfied, believing that his team should have won by three or four clear goals. More efficiency in man-up situations (4 of 12) and from the centre-forward Roman Blary, particularly unlucky, could indeed have changed the face of this match and the fate of this semifinal. As for him Olivier Chandieu, Marseille’s coach, may regret missed opportunities and the first (and unexpected) defeat, but nevertheless has the advantage to play the return leg in its home pool. The pride of Alsatians after this victory is understandable. However, on Saturday in Marseille it will take much more than that to win the Grail of a berth for the final.

Mathieu Peisson (Montpellier) and Toma Rodin (Nice) –

In the other semifinal, Nice-Montpellier, although the final gap was a little larger (9-11), the match was as physical and played than in Alsace, but often too chaotic. After a balanced first period (2-2), Nice took control in the second half (6-3), and even pushed its advantage up to four goals (8-4, 21st minute). Nevertheless the presence of Gabor Jaszberenyi in the goal and the defence of Montpellier had avoided things to be worse. Still slightly injured in a previous skirmish, Mathieu Peisson (2 goals) and David Heinrich brought back Montpellier only one goal from its opponent (8-7, 3rd period). In a game too physical, and even sometimes very close to the limit of agressiveness, Montpellier could consider itself aggrieved by some decisions of the referees, and showing his displeasure about that fact, Montpellier’s coach, Fabien Vasseur earned a deserved red card. However, rather than losing concentration, the defending champion drew from this adversity further motivation and rose the quality and efficiency of its game in the final period. Thanks to a defence of iron, and an Uros Kalinic of fire (3 goals), Montpellier equalised (8-8) and exceeded Nice (8-9) in less than two minutes. Taking advantage of his newfound mastery, the reigning champion increased its lead (final score: 9-11) and crucified Nice which, as in 2014, seems to have much trouble finishing the season. Without being there yet Montpellier, who will play the second leg in its venue of Antigone already seems to have one foot in the final.

French Pro A League

Results: semifinals 1st leg.

Nice – Montpellier  9 – 11 (2-2, 4-1, 2-4, 1-4)  
Strasbourg – Marseille  8 – 7 (2-1, 2-3, 3-2, 1-1)

Semi-finals 2ng leg
Saturday 9th of May:

Marseille – Strasbourg
Montpellier - Nice

Thanks to Eric Dupont.

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