“Ligue 1 – That’s Another Story,” trumpeted the front page of L’Équipe on Monday morning after PSG were beaten by Monaco at the Parc des Princes, a result that leaves the champions four points behind league leaders Lille. It seems that beating Barcelona at a canter is not as challenging a proposition for Mauricio Pochettino’s side as establishing themselves as clear favourites in a league supposedly populated by “farmers”. Ligue 1 is more competitive than people think.
PSG’s 2-0 defeat was not a shock given that they were missing several key players and had just travelled back from a Champions League match a few days earlier. Yet the nature of the defeat was certainly surprising. It demonstrated the positive evolution Monaco are enjoying under Niko Kovac, who arrived at the club last July as an eleventh-hour replacement for Robert Moreno just before the season began.
Kovac’s team offered glimpses of promise earlier in the campaign, particularly going forward, but they always seemed to follow up encouraging displays with more reckless showings. There have even been a few wobbles in their current run of 13 league games without a defeat; they conceded three goals to a woeful Nîmes team and needed a stoppage-time goal to earn a 2-2 draw against Lorient. So, given that PSG had just scored four goals in Barcelona, only one outcome looked likely in this encounter. Kovac himself suggested as much in the build-up, saying in his pre-match press conference: “We hope to take one point from this match.”
Monaco have the firepower necessary to go toe-to-toe with PSG – and they did win the reverse fixture 3-2 in November – but keeping the hosts away from Benjamin Lecomte’s goal seemed a tall order, even with Neymar, Ángel Di María and Pablo Sarabia missing, and Marco Verratti only starting on the bench.
Having achieved most of those good recent results by lining his team up in a 4-4-2 formation, Kovac took the bold step of shaking things up against PSG, changing his tactics and personnel. Axel Disasi and Ruben Aguilar came in for Krépin Diatta and Djibril Sidibé. And Monaco played with three orthodox centre-backs, with Disasi and Benoît Badiashile flanking Guillermo Maripán.
Aguilar, who played as the right-sided wing-back, delivered a stunning display, not only setting up Sofiane Diop for the opening goal but also shackling Kylian Mbappé. Much of the credit should go to Monaco’s cadre of youngsters – and to Kovac for showing faith in them. The young players came to the fore in a robust and well organised defensive display. Monaco deserved the win and the clean sheet. PSG barely troubled Lecomte, aside from a few speculative efforts from range.
Badïashile, who first came to most people’s attention when he was admonished by then-manager Thierry Henry for not pushing in his chair at a press conference, has grown under the tutelage of Kovac. He, along with Diop and the midfield partnership of Aurélien Tchouameni and Youssouf Fofana, continue to thrive.
That quartet has started nearly every match this season and they have improved as the campaign has worn on, showing themselves to be hard-working and tactically flexible (Monaco lined up yesterday in a 3-4-2-1 but have also played a 3-5-2 and 4-3-3 at various points). They are also willing to self-sacrifice, knowing that the attacking players in the team – such as Wissam Ben Yedder, Kevin Volland, and the recently fit again Aleksandr Golovin – will capitalise on their graft.
None of the four is older than 22 but, despite their youth, they have lots of experience. Diop did well on loan at Sochaux last season after breaking through under Henry; and Tchouameni and Fofana were regulars in Ligue 1 with their previous clubs, Bordeaux and Strasbourg, respectively. They still make mistakes – Fofana in particular was poor in that nervy win over Nîmes – but Kovac’s confidence in them has allowed them to feel more assured. He knows they are young players who will suffer growing pains, so has not burdened them with high expectations.
Even in a league where precocious young players can be taken for granted, what Kovac has wrought from the four of them is truly spectacular. Monaco completely dominated the midfield defensively, almost seeming to encourage PSG to play the ball wide, knowing that Moise Kean and Mbappé were not natural wingers. With Volland also adding bite when he dropped back to help, the visitors thoroughly suffocated PSG in what can only be described as a tactical masterclass by Kovac.
Monaco are fourth in the table, two points behind PSG, so the title (and even a Champions League place) may be a bridge too far this season. But, if they retain these young players for next season, they will be a threat in what looks like being a similarly open title race.
• Marseille followed up a decent win over Nice in the week with a draw against Nantes. And now comes the news that Jorge Sampaoli, currently managing Atletico Mineiro in Brazil, has agreed terms to replace André Villas-Boas. Sampaoli’s teams have tended to be exciting in attack, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can bring some badly needed stability to a club that has had precious little of it under the stewardship of Frank McCourt.
• Montpellier shook off the loss of Andy Delort to a hamstring injury to rack up their third straight league win. While Montpellier will be pleased with the 2-1 win over Rennes – a result that keeps them within touching distance of the European places – the pressure continues to mount on Rennes, who are now winless in six in all competitions. Julien Stéphan’s side had once looked favourites for fifth place and a return to Europe, but they are now eighth. It is a far cry from the cheer that accompanied their maiden Champions League campaign.
• Finally, a word for Lille, whose credentials for the title look even more impressive after their comprehensive 4-1 win over Lorient, who had found some form of late . It was especially impressive given that Christophe Galtier’s side were missing the talismanic Burak Yilmaz and were coming off a gutting loss to Ajax in the Europa League and a draw in the league against Brest. Their trip to the Moustoir had “banana skin” written all over it, but Lille hardly missed a beat. They are now three points clear of Lyon, and four above PSG with only a dozen matches left. The chasing pack are beginning to run out of chances to catch them.