Marseille, France, Feb 23: Andre Ayew headed home a corner deep into injury time Wednesday as Marseille beat Inter Milan 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 matchup to pile even more pressure on beleaguered coach Claudio Ranieri.
Inter's defeat was its sixth in seven games. The 2010 champion improved in the second half, but struggled to carve out clear chances against a well-organized Marseille team that lacked invention and a cutting edge up front.
Ranieri's team looked to have done enough to secure a draw, but Ayew timed his run perfectly in the third minute of added time to head the ball firmly past goalkeeper Julio Cesar's outstretched hand.
"Nothing's done yet. I'm happy and proud because the players believed in themselves until the end," Marseille coach Didier Deschamps said. "They were up against a team that has seen it all before, with players who are used to playing in quarterfinals, in semifinals, and yet they still won."
Reluctant to discuss the match at length afterward, Ranieri blamed bad luck.
"We played well, we had good counter attacks, we had more opportunities and they scored on their first chance," Ranieri lamented. "We did not deserve to lose."
Ranieri replied with a blunt "no" when asked if he was feeling the strain, and boldly predicted his side will beat Marseille in the return leg at San Siro.
"The San Siro will be full and it will be an advantage for us, we can score two goals no problem," Ranieri said. Inter, however, has not kept a clean sheet for nine straight games.
"We have a small advantage. It will be tough over there," Deschamps said. "We can't just content ourselves with defending."
Diego Forlan had Inter's best opportunity early in the match when he forced goalkeeper Steve Mandanda to tip the ball over the crossbar from close range.
The return leg is at Inter on March 13, and Ranieri must motivate his team to turn around a difficult situation amid what is likely to be more harsh criticism of his tactical choices.
Ranieri, who was roundly jeered by Inter fans last weekend, did not seem interested in going for an away win as he left striker Diego Milito on the bench in a dull second half.
Milito, who is by a long way Inter's top scorer with 12 league goals, is the only player to have scored for the struggling club in its miserable seven-game spell. Ranieri said Milito has been suffering from the 'flu — but Ranieri didn't bring striker Giampaolo Pazzini on either.
Marseille, meanwhile, extended its unbeaten run to 16 games.
Ayew's superb fitness allowed him to keep making runs as Inter's aging defense tired, and the Ghana winger connected perfectly with Mathieu Valbuena's corner from the left to stun Inter's traveling support at Stade Velodrome.
"Ayew has that desire, that rage deep inside of him, and he always will have it," said Deschamps, who played alongside Ayew's father, Abedi Pele, when Marseille won the Champions League in 1993. "His will to win rubs off on others. It's good for him, it's good for the team."
Marseille was without top scorer Loic Remy with a thigh injury, but midfielder Alou Diarra started after shaking off a toe problem. Brazilian Brandao took up a lone striker's role with Valbuena behind him.
Ranieri gave Forlan his European debut for the club — the Uruguay striker was ineligible for the group stage — and he was supported by Wesley Sneijder in a revamped attack.
Marseille attacked aggressively from the outset, keen to test a defense that had leaked 15 goals in the last six games.
Inter tried to sit back and soak up pressure, but veteran midfielder Dejan Stankovic betrayed his side's early nerves when he hit a routine short pass into touch, rather than to teammate Mauro Zarate standing five yards away from him.
Despite Marseille's bright start, Inter almost scored in the 11th minute when Forlan forced Mandanda into an excellent reflex save after running onto Esteban Cambiasso's pinpoint cross from the left.
Marseille remained in control, however. Valbuena often dropped deep or shuffled wide to support wingers Ayew and Morgan Amalfitano, making it increasingly hard for Inter's defense to predict his runs.
Marseille should have scored in the 30th. Center half Nicolas N'Koulou ran onto Valbuena's curling freekick and clipped the ball straight onto the leg of teammate Souleymane Diawara, rather than toward goal.
Inter almost punished Marseille moments later, when Cambiasso pulled the ball back to the unmarked Zarate, but his shot was comfortably smothered by Mandanda.
Marseille right back Cesar Azpilicueta tested Cesar with a dipping shot from 15 yards early in the second half, but Inter pushed up more and Marseille had to launch attacks from deep.
Ranieri replaced Zarate with Joel Obi midway through the second half, even though Zarate was lively throughout, and the play became more scrappy, with players from both teams overlooking simple passes and trying to make the difference themselves.
Stankovic then scuffed a weak shot straight at Mandanda from close range, and Ayew went close with two glancing headers before his decisive third attempt.