Pitchside Europe

Barton catches eye in long-awaited Ligue 1 bow

Joey Barton gets stuck in against Lille on his league debut for Marseille

Away from the glare of the English media, Joey Barton was still the focus of much attention in France ahead of his long-awaited Ligue 1 debut, which came in Sunday night's encounter between Marseille and Lille at the Stade Vélodrome.

In his home country, Barton will never shake off his bad-boy image. In France, he is l'enfant terrible du foot anglais.

However, there is a feeling that, if channelled in the right way, Barton's notorious character could make him a hero in football-crazy Marseille.

You might have forgotten, but the last Englishman to play for OM was Tyrone Mears, on loan from Derby County four years ago.

Chris Waddle is the one that everyone remembers, and while matching his achievements - three straight league titles and an appearance in the 1991 European Cup final - is asking too much, many believe Barton can be a source of inspiration as Élie Baup's side try to maintain an unlikely title push.

Barton was able to make his Ligue 1 debut on Sunday after finally completing that infamous 12-match domestic ban.

He had already appeared five times in the Europa League, even scoring direct from a corner in a 2-2 draw with Borussia Moenchengladbach, but the league is what really matters to Marseille and their supporters.

He played on the right of a midfield three in a 4-3-3 formation chosen by Baup, either to mirror the system favoured by Lille coach Rudi Garcia, or to accommodate the new boy without dropping Charles Kaboré or Benoît Cheyrou, who have both started every league game this season.

The occasion was a tense one.

After winning their first six league games, Marseille had won just one of their last six, and just twice in 11 in all competitions. Lille had also been eliminated from Europe in midweek but Rudi Garcia's side knew a win would move them level on points with their hosts.

With Lille dominating possession, Barton didn't see an awful lot of the ball in the first half, but he still made his mark. After 21 minutes, he caught Florent Balmont above the ankle with his studs showing. On another day he could have been sent off, and Balmont could have broken his leg.

"It deserved a red," said the Lille midfielder, who eventually got back on his feet after Barton had been booked by referee Laurent Duhamel.

The crucial moment of the game arrived in first-half stoppage time, when Barton's superb long ball over the top of the Lille defence found Mathieu Valbuena cutting in from the left wing. Heading for the penalty area, the French international playmaker went down under the slightest of touches from Balmont, who was adjudged to have denied a clear goalscoring opportunity and was shown a straight red card.

It was a harsh decision, and OM went on to take the lead just 32 seconds after the restart. Valbuena crossed for Jordan Ayew to head in the only goal of the game, as Marseille moved level on points with leaders Paris Saint-Germain.

A point in Wednesday's rearranged match at home to Lyon will be enough to take them clear at the top of the table again.

Without Balmont on the field, Barton strolled through much of the second half, and came close to scoring with a right-footed strike from outside the area that flew just wide of Mickaël Landreau's right post.

Shortly after that, in the 74th minute, he was replaced by Loïc Rémy. It was a promising start, but there is more to come.

Barton completed 37 out of 44 passes, and will now hope to have a greater influence on future matches.

"I'll need five or six games in a row before being at a hundred percent," said the player, who later added that he is "pleasantly surprised" by the standard of football on offer in France.

La Provence remarked that the 30-year-old was "a real catalyst in midfield" for OM, while Baup was satisfied with his debut, saying: "He played well. The card he picked up was unfortunate, and we need to be careful not to make him a target. After he got the card, he was intelligent enough to get involved a little less. There is no need to keep a closer eye on him than the others."

Nevertheless, observers on both sides of the Channel will be watching closely to see how the Barton experiment goes from here.