The Ligue 1 Review – Week 23

The name Soner Ertek is not one you might recognise; the Turkish-born defender spent much of his football career plying his trade in the French lower divisions, the semi-pro CFA fourth tier being his zenith. But unfortunately for Ertek, he will be vividly remembered by Radamel Falcao and supporters of AS Monaco for one reason. In January 2014, in the Coupe de France Round of 32, Claudio Ranieri’s nouveau-riche Monaco side took on fourth-tier Monts d’Or Azergues. Falcao had opened the scoring, putting Les Monegasques ahead, but his manager remained concerned.

“On many occasions, I drew the attention of the fourth official to the hardness of the game which was beginning to develop and to the danger that it posed to the players,” Ranieri told Monaco’s website. “I wasn’t listened to and that’s unfortunately not the first time that we have paid the consequences.”

The Italian’s concerns were unheeded and he soon saw his marquee acquisition scythed down by Ertek’s over-zealous lunge. Pounding the turf, Falcao looked up at Ertek in dismay, as if to ask why on earth he would do such a thing. Replays showed the Colombian’s knee crumple under the weight of Ertek’s challenge; it was immediately obvious that the ensuing lay off would be an extended one.

“I’m not going to hide that my sadness is huge, my heart is destroyed,” said Falcao, with the news that the ACL tear would end his season and likely his dream of playing at the World Cup. “God makes the improbable possible, I believe in Him.” The proud Colombian’s prayers, however, were not answered. After such a horrendous injury and subsequent ill-fated spells in England with Manchester United and particularly Chelsea, where Falcao became something of a punchline, his supreme form for Monaco this season is all the more commendable.

A clinical brace to dent Nice’s title hopes exemplifies the near-miraculous recovery his career has undergone this season. 14 goals in 13 league starts and a series of instinctive, predatory displays, have shown that El Tigre has been the missing ingredient for a Monaco team that are now genuine contenders on both the domestic and European stages.

Success in the principality has been a long time coming for Falcao; from the moment he posed with the club’s distinctive red-and-white shirt overlooking Monte Carlo Bay, the relationship between club and player has been a tumultuous one. The marquee acquisition of the Dmitry Rybolovlev era, Falcao joined in the summer of 2013 as part of a mammoth €150m outlay. He was the brightest among a constellation of stars that included Jérémy Toulalan, João Moutinho and James Rodriguez. Nevertheless, the Colombian’s stay at the Stade Louis ll was immediately brought into question. Marca reported that the player had asked to leave before the end of that summer window, allegedly unimpressed with the ‘sporting project’ and making eyes at long-term suitors Real Madrid.

Madrid president Florentino Perez told Punto Pelota that October that Falcao wanted to join his current crop of galacticos at the Bernabeu. The player, on the other hand, duly denied this saying he “believed in the Monaco project” as rumours swirled surrounding the LFP’s attempts to make Monaco adhere to the same rate of tax as the rest of the league, which would cut salaries in half and potentially force Falcao and James out. Falcao, for the time being, stayed put and, for a while, proved prolific, netting the winner at Bordeaux on his debut and scoring 11 in 19 before Ertek’s tackle ended his season. If Falcao did believe in the “Monaco Project” his faith grew thin as he recovered, as the Monaco he returned to was markedly different.

Owing to a costly divorce on the part of Rybolovlev, Monaco’s backing was no longer without limits. La Provence reported last year that their 2016/17 budget would drop to €145 million, compared to €500m for Paris Saint-Germain and €235m for Lyon. The ‘Monaco project’ was now at a crossroads and Vasilyev, installed as VP and CEO told L’Equipe in September 2014: “There were two possible roads to go down. The first was to spend big, that’s what we did at the beginning. The second, now, is to build a project for the long haul. Yes, it takes longer, it is less glorious, we will be talked about less in the press, people will be worried, there are no longer stars and there is less glamour… but we believe in it.”

Vasilyev’s spin aside, Monaco had little choice but to overhaul their philosophy, morphing from the ultimate buying club into the ultimate selling club.

The 68 goals in 23 Ligue 1 games Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco side have racked up and the resulting three-point lead over Nice and PSG this term can be attributed to a number of factors. Most of these were in evidence at the Stade Louis ll on Saturday, but crucially, the rejuvenated Colombian has become the catalyst for the coalescing of Jardim’s side, providing a focal point for an attack that now has purpose and drive after struggling to score through a myriad of lesser strikers last season.

Qualifying for the Champions’ League group stages over the summer allowed Monaco to keep a promising squad together, led by Falcao and his fellow loan returnee Valère Germain in attack. There is more, though, than this potent strike partnership; Monaco have also been buoyed by the development of their young wide players. The mercurial Bernardo Silva, and the skillful Thomas Lemar, have also been key components in a forward-thinking 4-4-2.

Both men pressed and harried Nice’s trio of centre backs to distraction, relentlessly showcasing their ability and intelligence to break up play and start counter-attacks. Under pressure from the duo regularly pinching possession in advanced areas. Nice’s talented young centre back Malang Sarr had one of his more torrid outings this season, eventually being sacrificed for a switch to a back four in the second half.

Even as imperious as Monaco have been in attack, they have been equally impressive at the back, where considerable investment was made in the form of Kamil Glik, Djibril Sidibé and Benjamin Mendy in the summer, leaving Jemerson as the only hold-over from last season. The towering Glik lead by example at the back against Nice, limiting an absent Mario Balotelli to just 9 first-half touches, and was once again ably protected by the tireless sentinels Fabinho and Bakayoko, a young whose range of passing is matched only by their defensive work-rate.

As a result, Nice’s wing-backs were easily exposed not only by the waspish pressing of Jardim’s front four, but also the marauding French international full back Sidibé and partner in crime Mendy on opposite flank. While Sidibé is usually the more reliable of the pair, it was Mendy who pushed to the fore here. His woeful service at the Parc des Princes last week was replaced by the devilish deliveries that Falcao and Germain gleefully gobble up.

After an even opening in which Nice showed the bold and committed style coach Lucien Favre has engendered in his charges this season, Monaco quickly found their rhythm and gradually grew into the game, putting them in the ascendancy by half time. Mendy’s tenacity provided the opening goal just after the break, digging out a superb cross to find the head of Germain, who had escaped Sarr to head home.

Mendy’s enterprise would again be crucial in providing Falcao with the means to put the game beyond doubt. Lemar’s simple pass utilised the burgeoning space behind Nice wing-back Souquet around the hour mark, slipping in Mendy whose pace provided a simple crossing opportunity for Falcao to attack the gap between the defenders and slide in for 2-0. Despite their recent rise and the genius of coach Favre, Nice are a modest club, slowly and wisely investing in youth and astute acquisitions from around Europe, gradually building to the crescendo of the last 18 months.

Nice however remain worlds away from even Monaco’s diminished spending power. In this way then, the gap in class began to show in the performances of new man Mendy, who arrived from Marseille for €13m this summer, a figure which is on its own equivalent to Nice’s total transfer outlay.

As the match wore on, Lemar and Mendy continued to cause havoc, again flanking what was now a back four from the left, with Mendy switching to feed Lemar. As Lemar bore down on the box, Falcao looked as if he had make a run for the far post, but to everyone’s surprise he stopped dead.

A deceptively simple move thus intelligently created space for Lemar to find Falcao who fired home and confirmed with 10 minutes to play what most had known at the hour mark; Monaco were staying at Ligue 1’s summit. That deft finish may prove to be a small but significant moment for Falcao, showing beyond reasonable doubt that the man Porto and Atleti fans remember so fondly endures and his instinct are as refined as ever.

Nice were by no means embarrassed, despite the margin; they are just three points behind Monaco and a Champions’ League berth would still be an astounding achievement. Monaco showed that not only are they the most compelling spectacle Ligue 1 has to offer but one of Europe’s best sides, with Falcao a prime factor in their development. As one member of staff at Atlético told El País: “On the morning of the game, he’s friendly and open. At lunch time, you can see he’s concentrating that bit more. But by the time you leave the hotel for the ground, he’s completely different. The contrast is huge. He leaves the dressing room last and if you see his face at that point, he’s no longer Falcao; he’s ‘The Tiger’. His only thought is the ball.”

Phoenix-like, with European football seemingly having all but given up on him, the Tiger has returned.

1 | Toulouse hadn’t scored in four matches in the league, in the process slipping from European contender to mid-table struggler. Their 4-0 win over Angers was thus a welcome end to their issues in finding the net, but not for the reasons one might expect. The club splashed the cash by their standards, bringing in former Caen striker Andy Delort from Tigres. He duly scored on his return to France, but more impressive than the ex-Wigan striker was the play of Oscar Trejo.

The Argentine played centrally in a 4-2-3-1, with Martin Braithwaite moved wide to accommodate Delort, and he was sublime on the evening, relishing the movement and pace of the attackers around him. The arrival of Corentin Jean on loan and Delort has given Trejo teammates that are more imaginative and less selfish than the likes of erstwhile wingers Jimmy Durmaz and Issiaga Sylla. In the absence of anything resembling consistency outside of the top three, on this form, it’s not difficult to see Toulouse, lacking the weight of expectation, return to the fore in the battle for European places.

2 | Bordeaux drew less than 17,000 fans to the Matmut Atlantique for their Saturday evening clash and were disappointing against Rennes in match that had real implications for the European places, with Marseille already having lost. Les Girondins have looked sharper overall since a change to a 4-3-3, but the team’s poor home record is becoming difficult to ignore.

They have taken only 19 points from 12 matches overall, winning only once in their last five, a 1-0 defeat of ten-man Toulouse. The team drew nearly 29,000 for a mid-week Coupe de la Ligue semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain a fortnight ago and played well for long stretches of that match despite losing. Could a similar crowd have given the hosts the edge against Rennes? Manager Jocelyn Gourvennec has his young side playing exciting football, but a lack of consistent support at home is surely testing the team’s confidence.

3 | Lyon manager Bruno Génésio did well upon his appointment last season, changing tactics from Hubert Fournier’s diamond 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 that got the best out of Rachid Ghezzal and Maxwel Cornet, the pair playing as inverted wingers. This season, though, he has shuffled tactics with an alarming frequency, despite that 4-3-3 being the best option for the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso.

Injuries have played their role in this flux, but the team have been largely healthy in the last month or so, and it was a relief for Lyon fans to see the team trot out an attack-minded 4-3-3 once again, with new signing Memphis Depay given place of pride on the left. However, rather than switching in-form Mathieu Valbuena to the right, he dropped the former Marseille man to the bench. He looked bright after his introduction, but Lyon, shorn from the off of any of creative force, were unable to respond to a pair of early goals from Saint-Étienne. Génésio has finally got his tactics right, but his personnel choices now need to redeem themselves.

4 | Montpellier striker Steve Mounié was back among the goals against Bastia on Saturday, netting a brace to see his team take a crucial three points. It was an auspicious debut for new manager Jean-Louis Gasset, and underscores how the team should be built around the youngster going forward. A sublime blend of pace and power, Mounié now has eight goals on the season, all from open play.

Putting aside penalties, that total ranks sixth in the league and represents a return akin to what the club may have expected after he netted 11 goals on loan for a poor Nimes side last season. With Jonathan Ikoné in on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, Montpellier now have the right blend of raw creativity (Ryad Boudebouz), power (Mounié) and pace (Ikoné) to properly get at teams, an asset that should not be understated in the relegation scrap.

5 | Eighteen year-old Yann Karamoh’s late winner gave Caen their first road win of the season at Guingamp on Saturday evening, but the youngster was far from the real hero. Rémy Vercoutre may be 36, but he rolled back the years impressively at the Stade Roudourou, making fine saves to deny Lucas Deaux, Marcus Coco and Jimmy Briand. Caen have much to do to haul themselves clear of the relegation scrap, but finally getting a win on the road will do much to boost the confidence of Patrice Garande and his charges. Alaeddine Yahia also had a superb match at the heart of defence; with Vercoutre, his performance was a potent reminder of the intrinsic value of veteran players when the chips are down.

Results: Metz 1-0 Marseille, AS Monaco 3-0 OGC Nice, Bordeaux 1-1 Rennes, Dijon 1-3 PSG, Guingamp 0-1 Caen, Lille 0-1 Lorient, Montpellier 2-1 SC Bastia, Toulouse 4-0 Angers, Nantes 0-2 Nancy, Saint-Étienne 2-0 Lyon.

Team of the Week: Remy Vercoutre, SM Caen; Kevin Malcuit, AS Saint-Étienne, Milan Bisevac, FC Metz, Thiago Silva, Paris Saint-Germain, Benjamin Mendy, AS Monaco; Bernardo Silva, AS Monaco, Oscar Trejo, Toulouse FC, Alou Diarra, AS Nancy-Lorraine, Thomas Lemar, AS Monaco; Radamel Falcao, AS Monaco, Steve Mounié, Montpellier HSC

Goal of the Week: Steve Mounié, Montpellier HSC

A.W. and E.D.


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