by Andy SCOTT
PARIS: – After a short winter break, Ligue 1 clubs are back in action this weekend in the round of 64 of the French Cup, with Marseille hoping to avoid any surprise against lower-league opponents.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side, who topped the Ligue 1 table at the halfway stage of the season to take the symbolic title of Autumn Champions, travel to the freezing Alps for an awkward tie against fourth-tier Grenoble on Sunday.
A tie that should be straightforward could be a tricky affair due to the state of the playing surface at the Stade des Alpes, which has been covered to protect it from the bitter cold but will be used for a Top 14 rugby match on Saturday.
“It is a reality that we need to live with. The pitch will suffer but I don’t think it is something worth pointing out because it will be the same for the two teams,” said Bielsa.
The Argentine added that he intends to play his strongest possible team as Marseille try to win the Cup for the first time since 1989.
“I am going to try to play my best team, taking into account the future absences of Nicolas Nkoulou and Andre Ayew,” said Bielsa, who will see the duo depart for the Africa Cup of Nations with Cameroon and Ghana respectively.
Winger Florian Thauvin will come up against the club where he started his career, although much has changed at Grenoble in recent times.
They spent two seasons in Ligue 1 before being relegated in 2010 and then sliding down the leagues due to financial problems, and are currently enjoying a fine campaign in the fourth tier.
– PSG in need of boost –
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain go to Montpellier in an all top-flight encounter on Monday.
Montpellier beat the capital giants at the Parc des Princes in the round of 32 a year ago and Rolland Courbis’s side may fancy their chances of a repeat performance this time, just two weeks after holding PSG in the league.
With Montpellier’s own Stade de la Mosson still out of action after being seriously damaged during autumn floods, the game will be played at the home of the city’s Top 14 rugby club, who play at the Altrad Stadium themselves on Saturday.
That could be a levelling factor, but PSG — whose preparations have been overshadowed by the late return from Christmas holidays of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani — need a positive result.
“Paris attract the limelight because, for certain people, they are the best team in France,” said Montpellier defender Bryan Dabo.
“Matches against Paris are always special. We are not afraid, we are looking forward to it.”
Elsewhere, Lyon, who sit second in Ligue 1 ahead of third-placed PSG, travel to Lens on Sunday looking for revenge after losing to the same opponents in last season’s competition.
Monaco, who finished 2014 with six straight wins, begin the new year with a trip to Ligue 2 strugglers Nimes, whose campaign has been overshadowed by allegations of match-fixing.
Lille go to Bastia and Bordeaux face Toulouse in all Ligue 1 ties while Nantes play host to Club Franciscain, a sixth-tier side from the French Caribbean island of Martinique.
Cup holders Guingamp begin their trophy defence at home to Brittany neighbours Dinan Lehon, of the fifth tier.
French Cup round of 64 fixtures involving Ligue 1 clubs (all kick-offs GMT)
Bobigny v Evian, St Maur Lusitanos v Reims, Nantes v Club Franciscain (all 1415), Valenciennes v Nice, Avranches v Lorient (both 1700), SC Bastia v Lille (1945 GMT)
Epinal v Metz (1245), Saint-Etienne v Nancy, Lens v Lyon, Nimes v Monaco, Bordeaux v Toulouse, Dinan Lehon v Guingamp (all 1315), Dunkerque v Rennes (1400), Caen v Dijon (1645), Grenoble v Marseille (1945)
Montpellier v Paris Saint-Germain (1945)