The two Europa League semifinals could not be more different. The marquee matchup might be between Atletico Madrid and Arsenal, two giants of European soccer who weren’t quite good enough for the deeper stages (or in Arsenal’s case any stage at all) of the Champions League this year, but all the fun is on the other side of the bracket. That’s where Marseille will be taking on RB Salzburg for a trip to play one of the big boys in the finals. They’re two less-heralded teams, but each is tremendously fun in their own way.

Olympique

Marseille is a French club with a rich tradition. And while their league has now been reduced to the Paris Saint-Germain show, Marseilles is actually France’s historic powerhouse. They’ve won the league 10 times, most recently in 2009-10. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, they dominated the league, winning four times in a row and having a fifth-straight title, in 1992-93, stripped from them after a bribery scandal.

This year’s version of the team currently sits in fourth place in Ligue 1, trailing Lyon only by goal difference. They’ve succeeded largely thanks to the amazing season of attacking midfielder Florian Thauvin, who at 25 is becoming a true superstar in his second stint with the club.

He has scored 19 goals this season, 10 more than any of his teammates and is second in the league, tied with Neymar and behind only Edinson Cavani. His 10 assists rank second the team, trailing Dmitri Payet’s 12, but are also fourth in Ligue 1. In all of France, only Neymar, Thauvin and former Manchester United winger Memphis Depay are in double digits in both goals and assists. Thauvin has provided a kind of all-around attacking dominance for Marseilles that few players in the world can deliver.

Die Roten Bullen

Marseille might be somewhat unheralded in the modern game compared to the likes of Atletico Madrid and Arsenal, but they’re a gigantic club when stacked up against their opponent. RB Salzburg are true upstarts. They may dominate their domestic league in Austria, but their domestic league is a tiny 10-team group. Even a team that is as dominant domestically as they are should struggle this late in a domestic competition. Salzburg lead the Austrian Bundesliga by 11 points and their +47 goal differential is 22 notches better than anybody else. They’ve scored the most goals and conceded the fewest while running roughshod through their league.

What really makes Salzburg stand out in the Europa League is just how difficult their path to the semifinals has been. For three rounds in a row they’ve faced some of the best competition across Europe and proved their mettle. In Round-of-32 they scored a 93rd-minute equalizer to draw 2-2 at Real Sociedad before winning, 2-1, at home to advance. In the Round of 16 they went to Borussia Dortmund and won, 2-1, before killing the contest off at home with 0-0 draw. And in the quarterfinals they staged an epic comeback after losing to Lazio, 4-2, on the road. Salzburg took the second leg, 4-1, scoring three goals in a four-minute span from the 72nd to 76th minute.

Can Anyone Stop The Magic?

It’s been a wild ride for Salzburg but one that has allowed them to show just how resilient they are. Most tiny teams that make deep tournament runs do so thanks to an easy draw combined with dogged defending and just enough attack. Salzburg breaks that mold. They’ve shown the flexibility to open up the game and score when they need to; they’ve also shown the ability to tighten up and defend a lead when they have it. If Salzburg don’t win in Marseille, it certainly won’t be because they aren’t prepared.

Usually at some point the clock strikes midnight for a Cinderella story such as RB Salzburg. When it does, they’ve got a habit of scoring a late goal and progressing anyway.


Photo: Marseille’s Dimitri Payet and Kostas Mitroglou celebrate. Credit: Olympique de Marseille