Like all of the best ones, the Classique is a rivalry which extends beyond football. True, not to the extent of Rangers-Celtic, or Dinamo-Red Star, or any of Europe's truly blood-curdling conflicts, but there exists a rivalry between the two cities which extends a long way off the pitch.
In England, it's common to see this manifested in local neighbors in the same broad area -- Manchester and Liverpool, or Newcastle and Sunderland. It's not so common to see this from two cities hundreds of miles apart. Sure, there may be animosity between the North and South in England, and even more so in Italy, but there is no great club-vs-other-club conflict where both sides purport to represent their respective region.
The North-South divide in France is far less pronounced, and on the face of it Marseille and Paris seem fairly similar (but then, those are always the ones that seem the most wildly different to the actual participants.) They're both fairly picturesque, old cities with a lot of history, a hugely heterogeneous populace, consisting of a centre filled with expensive bars, phenomenal restaurants and artisan patisseries, surrounded by grim, rough suburbs. Ask anyone from either town their opinion on the other, however, whether football fan or not, and the reaction will be the same: the devil's own personal septic tank.
Marseille are the best-supported club in France by a not-inconsiderable margin, but since PSG struck oil, they repeated a phenomenon found in several other clubs where many indifferent fans suddenly rediscovered a die-hard loyalty to the club. They are genuinely popular in Paris now, in a way they haven't always been in recent years, particularly considering they have the unusual luxury of effectively being the only show in town of a vast, world-renowned metropolis.
Since that buyout, PSG have dominated French football, only challenged this year by the equally-wealthy Monaco, whose challenge did not take too long to wither away against Laurent Blanc's suffocating tactics and strategy. Marseille are now perhaps cursing themselves for not making more of the good times -- for such a well-supported club, they really ought to have won more than they did, and now the game has changed beyond recognition.
The way of coping with this was to take advantage of the next wave of French youngsters arriving on the scene and buy up as many as possible. It seemed to make sense -- PSG and Monaco's strategies demanded immediate success, and they couldn't afford to spend too much time developing domestic talent. So Marseille signed the most exciting young French attacker around in Florian Thauvin, and added the likes of Gianni Imbula, Benjamin Mendy and Mario Lemina. In January they also snapped up Brice Dja Djedje, and they had gotten a player with some experience in the formidable Dimitri Payet too.
It is said that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but Marseille's plan looked decidedly shaky coming into contact with anything approaching reality. It was a disaster, and the club completely fell away from any notion of a title challenge and looked set to miss out on the Champions League to boot. This is the problem with a long-term project: the short-term is often hellish.
Of course, the advantage to failing miserably with young players is that they can learn from the experience and still have plenty of potential to develop, If you fail miserably with expensive, established players you've just thrown money away. So Marseille appointed José Anigo as their new manager, and managed to pull a fine run of form out of the bag that has seen them back in contention for Europe.
Marseille's long-term plan can't survive a total lack of immediate success. Thauvin was already attracting the attention of Europe's finest, and while to compete with their wealthier rivals there will have to be an element of rationality to their sales, they obviously need to hang onto their best players when possible too. They need to find the right balance between behaving like Porto and Dortmund. But above all else, they need to be in the Champions League.
Ligue Un has been a very unpredictable place since Lyon's dominance came to an end, with the league throwing up random surprises every year -- from some highly-unfancied teams ending up as Champions for a number of years, Lille and Montpellier have managed to retain their clout and are still fighting it out for that last European spot. A win on Parisian soil would not only be aid their league campaign, but it would also give them some sort of happy memory for what has been a pretty wretched season, in a year that was supposed to kick off a new masterplan.
Marseille can certainly do that, but they're facing a PSG side that has something of the José Mourinhos about them -- one that rarely makes mistakes, suffocates games when they need to, and one which does not throw away leads. But Marseille need that victory a lot more than Blanc's men do. Perhaps France has one other late twist in store.