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Coupe de la Ligue Review – The Quarter-Finals

With the possible exception of Nantes, all of the “bigger” sides won in this mid-week’s Coupe de la Ligue quarterfinals. Guingamp’s standing in the table might be cause for a contrary argument, but in general things went according to plan, but not without a bit of nerves. Eric Devin returns to pick out the key points from the four matches.

1 | Nancy’s Hidden Gem

It hasn’t been an easy season for Nancy, despite the club’s fairly solid standing in the table. Manager Pablo Correa’s madcap rotation style has allowed the team to play a high pressure, defensively sound game, but things were looking grim against in-form Nantes on Tuesday.

Already without Clement Lenglet after the youngster’s transfer to Sevilla and the suspended Erick Cababco, a hamstring injury to captain Michael Chrétien made the situation at centre back very delicate. Alou Diarra had filled in at the weekend, but at 35, a second match in such a short span of time was less than ideal. With little choice, Correa put in youngster Faitout Maouassa at left back and slid Tobias Badila over into central defence.

Maouassa was a member of France’s title-winning U-19 squad in the summer, and performed admirably against Nantes, showing good energy and pace throughout. More impressive though, was the performance of Badila. Already quietly one of Ligue 1’s best defensive left backs, his aerial ability (more clearances than any other fullback) and pace could make him an ideal stop-gap measure in a season that has seen the Dijon-born player take a much bigger role than expected.

Long a squad player struggling to live up to his potential, injury to Vincent Muratori forced him into the side, and he has been impressive ever since on the left, but on the basis of Tuesday’s match, he may have a future in the middle as well, easing the stress Correa must surely be feeling.

2 | Class is Permanent

João Moutinho must be delighted with Monaco’s sterling season, but it has been somewhat of a surprise not to see the Portuguese feature more regularly. The form of Tiemoué Bakayoko and Fabinho has been the main culprit, but injury and a slow return after the European Championships surely comes into play as well.

Starting a league cup match meant a fairly rare opportunity to shine, and Moutinho seized his opportunity with both hands. On a night when Bakayoko seemed over-ambitious and easily frustrated against a resilient Sochaux, Moutinho played a calming role, knitting together the midfield in attack and denying the hosts anything in the middle of the park.

He also scored a pretty cracking goal as well, his instinctive half-volley seven minutes from time enough to take the match to penalties. He was on point there as well, slotting home coolly as Monaco’s second taker to give them the advantage. Leonardo Jardim’s men were being physically and mentally tested on a brutally cold night, but the unruffled yet classy match played by Moutinho made the difference.

The more direct style of Fabinho and Bakayoko still suggest that they should start the club’s biggest matches, as in the Champions’ League, but in Moutinho, Jardim has the perfect professional, ready to demonstrate the necessary maturity and work-rate not matter the situation or opponent.

3 | Laborde’s Time is Now

As I mentioned in my Coupe de France review, Bordeaux looked fine indeed in a 4-3-3 at the weekend, their 1-0 victory over Clermont flattering the Ligue 2 side, but Guingamp would provide sterner opposition, even with a rotated side. The visitors struck first, with barely ten minutes gone before horrific defending saw Sloan Privat head the manager’s old team ahead. Already the boos could be heard, as Les Girondins looked set to fritter away a genuine opportunity for silverware. The team responded well, though, with Francois Kamano providing an equalizer just five minutes later.

Gaetan Laborde, leading the line ahead of habitual starters Jérémy Menez and Diego Rolan, had two gilt-edged chances before opening the scoring on half an hour. He later added a second to increase the margin to 3-1, and it’s easy to see why he was recently granted an extension.

Analyst Brendan MacFarlane compares the player to Andy Delort, and it’s easy to see why, as both combine a rare blend of physicality, pace and positional intelligence. Left-footed but adept enough with both feet, and full of darting runs to pull opposing centre backs about Laborde makes the ideal fulcrum in a 4-3-3, but could also combine well next season with Enzo Crivelli in a 4-4-2 double pivot.

His goal ratio of one every 144 minutes far exceeds that of Rolan or Menez and given the wealth of young talent Bordeaux have on the wing to facilitate an improvement in that regard, Laborde should retain his starting place at the weekend and beyond.

4 | Ikoné Impresses

Christopher Nkunku’s rapid rise in the Paris Saint-Germain hierarchy was the focus of a piece written for the site yesterday, and while he turned in a steady performance against Metz, nothing he did caught the eye in any dramatic fashion. That role, then, belonged to Jonathan Ikoné, getting a rare start on the wing. While Angel Di Maria, Thiago Silva and Marco Verratti were comfortably PSG’s best on the night, the eighteen year-old wasn’t far behind.

Rather than playing as an orthodox winger, as he is left-footed, he constantly cut inside, flooding Metz’s box when Rabiot and Nknunku got forward, and allowing Maxwell to stretch play laterally. The veteran Brazilian was also up to the task, getting in several fine crosses by enjoying the space opened up for him by the youngster.

This sort of positional intelligence is impressive indeed, and he also made a menace of himself with the ball at his feet, repeatedly embarrassing the Metz captain, Guido Milan. He is far from the finished article, but added to the likes of Nkunku, Rabiot and Kimpembé, PSG now look to have a healthy relationship with their young players, Jean-Kevin Augustin’s temper tantrum notwithstanding.

As the capital club embark on a busy period of their schedule, (nine matches in the next five weeks capped by a visit from Barcelona) avoiding injuries and keeping players fresh will be of paramount importance for Unai Emery. Able to finally rely on the club’s strong academy system, a luxury not afforded to his predecessors in the QSI era, the Spaniard may finally have the rub of the green, his faith in youth rewarding him with deep cup runs and a rise up the table domestically.

E.D. – Chief Features Writer


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