Coupe de la Ligue Final – AS Monaco v PSG
It’s tough to tell if 1st April is an appropriate or inappropriate date for the final of France’s junior cup competition, as football is of course a serious business. There are a lot of tempting options for practical jokes, however – the mascot who turns out to be Nicolas Sarkozy, the goal-line technology team deciding to have a bit of fun by putting a delay on the signal, the possibility of referee Frank Schneider dishing out poissons (rouges / jaune) d’avril and reducing some of the more sensitive players to tears. Unai Emery starting Hatem Ben Arfa.
Anyway – PSG are going for their seventh Coupe de la Ligue, having won the last three editions in a row; Monaco have just the one, from a 4-1 win over Sochaux in 2003. For the first time in 19 years, the final will not be at the Stade de France, instead taking place at Parc OL – the reasoning seems to be the FFF wanting to make the most of the Euro 2016 infrastructure investment, as the following editions will be in Bordeaux and Lille.
Both teams joined in the round of 16. PSG beat Lille and Metz at home by two goals apiece, before thumping Bordeaux 4-1 at the Matmut Atlantique. To start, Monaco did one of their things, beating Rennes 7-0, with Kylian Mbappe getting a hat-trick, before they had much nervier results over Ligue 2’s Sochaux on penalties, and Nancy 1-0. This rather relied on goalkeeper Guy Ndy Assembé making a rick of significant proportions and allowing the ball to bounce over him, into the path of Falcao.
While the first final of the season, this may be the lowest competition on Monaco’s priority list, with a three-point lead in the league table to protect, and a Champions League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund coming up. With PSG humiliatingly out of European competition, silverware being a priority, and their recent success in this competition, this final may mean more to them – and to Emery.
Both managers have scheduling and staffing issues to consider; firstly as both are still in the Coupe de France, with the quarter-finals taking place midweek. Here, Monaco are at the disadvantage as they host Lille on Tuesday evening, while PSG have a day more to recover before a trip to potentially less tricky opponents, National side Avranches. After the next league round, Monaco also have that Dortmund match to factor in, so Leonardo Jardim’s man-management skills will in particular be key over the coming weeks.
There are also the effects of the international break to consider; Monaco had around ten players off on international duty, PSG around 16, including three who were injured – or found to be injured – while away, which means they will be missing Marquinhos and Grzegorz Krychowiak, although Thomas Meunier is named in the squad. Hatem Ben Arfa is named in the squad after his recent forays into bridge-based video statements; whether this is a chance to redeem himself, or to be left pointedly on the bench again, remains to be seen. Monaco have Falcao back from injury, but Fabinho is suspended – so they may be hoping this doesn’t go to penalties – and Djibril Sidibe is named in the squad after a worrying-looking knock against Luxembourg, although seems unlikely to start.
If PSG are the more desperate to win this, it’s also true that they have not dealt well with desperation recently. After the events at the Camp Nou, you do worry that however the match starts, doubts could soon creep in, and only grow with the passing minutes – if Monaco score early, “oh God it’s happening again”; if it’s goalless, “they’re going to score in a minute”; even if PSG score first, even two, “we could still throw it away”… This will be a stern test of character for the champions, to show what they are made of – but everybody needs to not panic.
Meanwhile, Monaco’s attitude does not at all seem prone to panic, as shown in the second leg against Manchester City. Again deprived of a first-choice centre-back with Kamil Glik suspended, they lost his replacement Andrea Raggi on 70 minutes when 2-0 up and thus heading through on away goals. Almost immediately, City got a goal to go back ahead on aggregate – but where Monaco might have wilted, and were clearly at the last of their energy reserves, they kept it together. Tiemoué Bakayoko got the goal, and they held out for their away goals win.
Plus, if Jardim does rotate, this will probably be to the benefit of some of the other young guns that Monaco have at their disposal, such as Almamy Toure, Kévin N’Doram or Abdou Diallo, maybe a chance for latest hot prospect Irvin Cardona to get some playing time after appearing for France U20s over the international break. If so, a combination of something to prove and boundless youthful enthusiasm could do a lot to bridge the gap in experience.
The bookies have PSG as favourites, the rest of the team see PSG taking it (Eric Devin predicting 2-1 to PSG), Jardim’s saying that PSG have the edge, in what is either blunt honesty or >Mou-level mind-games, whatever. Despite the odds, this feels tricky to call. The top two in the league in two different moods with two different short-term calendars and a raft of talented players in a range of different mindsets. I have a karmic hedge bet on 0-0 – which would be the first of the season for Monaco and only the second (after that definition of frustration against Toulouse) for PSG. But as the late great Hunter S Thompson used to say, “when the going gets weird…”.
Here’s hoping for goals.
Monaco : Subasic, De Sanctis, Sy – Diallo, Glik, Jemerson, Jorge, Sidibe, Mendy, Raggi, Toure – Bakayoko, Dirar, Lemar, Moutinho, N’doram, Silva – Falcao, Germain, Mbappé, Cardona
PSG : Areola, Descamps, Trapp – Aurier, Kimpembe, Kurzawa, Maxwell, Meunier, Thiago Silva – Matuidi, Pastore, Rabiot, Motta, Verratti, Ben Arfa, Nkunku, Lo Celso, Di Maria, Draxler, Lucas – Cavani, Guedes