Marseille's Heinze set for final bow
Marseille coveted Gabriel Heinze for his physcial presence and experience
Heinze's switch from center back to left back was key during Marseille's title run
Heinze has won 3 league titles with 3 different teams in 3 different countries
When Didier Deschamps was appointed coach of Marseille in summer 2009, the first thing he did was rebuild the team's defense. The central-defensive partnership that had started the previous season, Vitorino Hilton and El-Amin Erbate, had flopped big-time and potentially cost Marseille the league title: it finished only three points behind champions Bordeaux, who clinched the trophy on the final day of the season.
Deschamps demanded more physical strength in the side, and more experience in the squad. The physique came in the presence of Soulemayne Diawara (signed from Bordeaux) and Stephane M'Bia (Rennes) and the experience from Edouard Cisse, then 31, and Fernando Morientes, 33, both of whom played under Deschamps's Monaco side that reached the 2004 Champions League final. Only one player who became a first-team regular combined both attributes: Gabriel Heinze, then 31. Heinze's no-nonsense style on the pitch and work ethic off it made him as popular with his teammates as with Marseille's passionate fans, who soon forgot about his three years with archrivals Paris Saint-Germain.
Heinze began last season partnering Diawara at center back, but when M'Bia moved back there in January, proving to be a revelation, the Argentine played at left back. It's not his preferred position, but the move paid off: Marseille conceded 16 goals in the second half of the season (compared to 20 in the first half) and Heinze's leadership skills had a huge influence.
"Heinze is the epitome of an Argentine defender," Deschamps told La Provence. "He's tough, likes to fight, but also has great technique, and he's a super professional, a great example to the rest of the squad." Heinze is first to arrive at training and last to leave, claiming he likes to "hang out" with the club staff. His presence has also helped Lucho Gonzalez, the Argentine playmaker, settle in France after becoming Marseille's record signing.
Heinze will start at left back on Tuesday night, when he returns to Old Trafford to face his former club Manchester United in the Champions League Round of 16 second leg. The first leg, in which United winger Nani got the better of Heinze early on in Stade Velodrome before the Argentine's street-smart play leveled their duel, ended 0-0.
"You can see that his legs are gone, but he now just plays with his head and sheer desire, and that's enough to get him through games," said one Marseille-based reporter. Deschamps would rather pick a slow Heinze than his replacement, Taye Taiwo, who is faster and offers more going forward, but is often found wanting tactically.
Heinze has said he regrets the manner of his departure from United in 2007: Player of the Year in his first season (2004-05), and a title-winner in his third (2006-07), he upset the club and its fans by trying to force a move to Liverpool after losing his place to Patrice Evra. A Premier League tribunal ruled that United did not have to accept Liverpool's £6.8 million ($10.9M) offer for him and Heinze moved to Real Madrid two months later. United coach Sir Alex Ferguson claimed the deal was part of Madrid's master-plan to lure Cristiano Ronaldo to the Spanish capital (the two players are still very friendly) but that is unfair to Heinze: he played over half the league matches in helping Real Madrid win the title in his first season there.
For all the acrimony in the past, Heinze should still get a great reception at Old Trafford, which, he told Le Figaro, "is not called the Theatre of Dreams for nothing. The atmosphere is unique. I have played for Real Madrid but for me, Manchester United is without doubt the biggest club in the world."
Heinze was also canny enough to pay tribute to Ferguson before his return. "He was like a father to me, as I was only 23 when I joined United," he said in another interview, this time with Le Parisien. "I often joined him in his office and he gave me advice which has helped me throughout my career." It must have been pretty good, given that Heinze has won three league titles, with three different clubs in three different countries, in the last four years -- and been loved by the fans at all of them.
In fact, the only team he has represented and not engaged with the supporters is the Argentina national team. His critics back home accuse him of being a long-ball merchant, betraying the ball-playing principles of predecessors like Juan Pablo Sorin and Diego Placente. He has a tense relationship with the Argentine press, who seem surprised that successive national coaches Marcelo Bielsa, Jose Pekerman, Alfio Basile and Diego Maradona have all picked him. Maradona is said to have encouraged Heinze's move to Marseille with the promise that first-team football would guarantee his place in Argentina's World Cup side.
But the journey might be coming to an end soon. According to a report in L'Equipe this week, Deschamps might leave in the summer, as suggested in this column last November. If Marseille fails to qualify for the Champions League next season, it would struggle to foot Heinze's huge salary which, at an €4.5 million ($6.2M), was Ligue 1's highest last season. Deschamps has already confirmed that Taiwo is definitely leaving, and Marseille has been linked with FC Copenhagen's Oscar Wendt and Sampdoria's Reto Ziegler as replacements.
For Heinze, then, this game could be the curtain-call on his Champions League career. Only once, in 2007, has he reached further than the last 16, when United lost to AC Milan in the semifinals. Not that "The Warrior" as Deschamps calls him, is seeing it like that. "The important thing is that we are confident in the dressing-room," Heinze said. "We want to retain our French title and keep going in Europe. Anything less than first is nothing to me."
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