The current Ligue 1 season has been one of the most intriguing league campaigns that European football has offered fans in 2014-2015. Few top-tier leagues have seen as much unexpected twists and turns, and it would be no exaggeration to say that skeptical assumptions about Ligue 1 being a dull, purely one horse PSG-dominated race have been cast aside and shelved.
No club’s fortunes this season have epitomised the unpredictable nature of the league as well as AS Monaco, with the Monte Carlo-based club surging back into the top three after a great change in form.
Things looked quite bleak for ‘les Monégasques’ at the start of the season, as in addition to losing three of their opening five games and winning just one match, the men from the principality also saw the departure in quick succession of their galactique duo of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao.
Such was the perceived extent of the side’s expected decline at the start of the season, the respected Swiss-based statistical CIES institute predicted that Monaco would drop down two places from their 2013-2014 second-place to fourth, which would have resulted in the absence of UEFA Champions’ League football from the Stade Louis-II.
However, head coach Leonardo Jardim has since done extremely well to turn his critics into fans, thanks to his disciplined coaching style and to his side’s stunning improvement in form. Monaco have edged the usual suspects Lille and Saint-Étienne off the top spot in terms of being statistically the best defensive side in Ligue 1, and they shocked Arsenal fans with their impressive three-one win at the Emirates, but it was a win that was very much in the mold of the counter-attacking style that Jardim has built into his side.
A good marker of just how well Monaco have improved is the fact in the last ten Ligue 1 matches, no team has won more points or conceded less goals.
Ahead of their Tuesday clash tonight with Juventus, I’ve decided to take a look a five players who have been instrumental to Monaco’s turnaround, and who could do the unthinkable and push Jardim’s side past Juventus.
Aymen Abdennour – Centre-Back
As generic footballing nicknames go, no name pleases fans for a centre-back more than le Roc (the rock), and that’s exactly the name that Aymen Abdennour has earned himself. The 25-year-old is often described as an old school centre-back, with his sheer strength and commitment in the tackle winning making him a fans favourite in the principality.
The Tunisian international had an impressive two and a half seasons in Toulouse before he made the switch to the club’s Ligue 1 rivals Monaco, and he has developed technically as a player since making the step-up to the starting line-up of one of France’s traditionally more powerful sides.
Abdennour is easily one of the most physically capable centre-backs in France and he will once again be of a key importance to his side tonight, particularly against a Juventus side that like to attack.
The 44 times internationalist is primarily left-sided and this gives the central defensive partnership a good balance when he plays alongside his veteran right-sided partner Ricardo Carvalho. Abdennour cruised through the first leg in the last round against Arsenal, with some English media outlets describing him as a ‘conquering’ defender.
Abdennour has won admirers outside of France in the last round, reportedly including recruiters at Serie A’s Napoli, and you wouldn’t bet against him doing the same when his side take on The Old Lady tonight.
Geoffrey Kondogbia – Defensive Midfield
Tonight’s tie will most likely provide viewers with an intense midfield battle, as both sides are extremely well organised and disciplined when it comes to matters in their respective engine rooms, however one disappointment will be the fact that we won’t be able to see a mouthwatering clash between Paul Pogba and his friend and France teammate Geoffrey Kondogbia.
The match will however give Kondogbia the perfect chance to demonstrate why his name should be held up alongside that of Pogba’s when we speak about the most exciting prospects in French, if not European, football. The former Sevilla midfielder is excelling at Monaco, and he attributes much of his success to the wealth of first-team opportunities he’s had under Jardim, telling France Football recently that the Portuguese technician knows how to make his players feel valued.
Kondogbia is another high-quality graduate of the La Gailette academy, RC Lens’ well-respected youth system, which has seen the likes of Raphaël Varane and Serge Aurier pass through its doors in recent years. The 22-year-old’s long-range strike at the Emirates may have surprised some, but Pascal Bérenguer, the now Tours FC midfielder who played along side Kondogbia when he broke into the Lens first-team, wasn’t surprised at all.
Bérenguer told the French news site 20 Minutes that his former teammate has always been above the rest in terms of his technical ability on the ball and that he “a superb left-foot”. The former Seville midfielder, who won the U20s World Cup alongside the like of Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Florian Thauvin, uses his gifted left-foot to the best of his ability, as his passing game has aided him to become one of the most cultured holding midfielders in France.
Similarly to Abdennour, Kondogbia has built up an impressive partnership alongside another more experienced player in the shape of Jérémy Toulalan, and it’s clear that the former Lyon and Nantes’ man’s tenacity and toughness has rubbed off on the junior partner. Expect a big performance from Kondogbia tonight, as the 22-year-old isn’t the type of player who shies away from the centre of attention.
Bernardo Silva – Attacking Midfield
Initially signing on at the club on loan, Bernardo Silva has been yet another impressive addition to the Monégasque side’s squad ranks, and the 20-year-old’s January signature from Benfica has helped to give the club an increased Portuguese feel. At such an early stage in his career, Silva is an extremely exciting prospect and he appears to be flourishing in a different shade of red and white since he left the club where he was formed.
Such has been the success of the 20-old since his move to Monte Carlo that French magazine So Foot seriously questioned if Silva’s near €16million fee could be considered as the ‘deal of the century’. The departure of James Rodriguez, for many the star of the 2014 World Cup, was predictably going to pose Monaco with many problems, but in Silva the principality-based club have found an extremely capable replacement.
Standing at just five foot eight, you could be forgiven for thinking that Silva wouldn’t be likely to succeed in the relatively physical Ligue 1, but what the Monaco number 15 lacks in physical presence, he more than doubles in terms of his creativity, his flare and his dribbling ability.
Silva’s five goals and countless impressive performances this season recently earned him a call-up to the Portugal international set-up and he promptly made his debut against the Cape Verde Islands last month.
As a relatively short and skillful left-footer, Silva obviously draws unbearable comparisons with a certain Argentine who shall remain nameless, and though similarities exist between the two, it’s a little too early in his career to be getting that excited about him
However, the 20-year-old is the type of player who can make things happen out of nothing when given the ball, and should his teammates manage to get him on to the ball enough tonight, he could have a defining role to play.
Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco – Attacking Midfield
When I’m asked about my favourite players to watch in Ligue 1, Yannick Ferriera-Carrasco (or ‘YFC’ as he has become to be known) is one of the first to come to mind. He’s a 21-year-old midfield genius who oozes class and most importantly does that most crucial of things for an offensive midfielder – he makes things happen in the final-third of the pitch where too often other players don’t.
With his incredible ability with both feet, his great turn of pace and his impressive vision, Ferriera-Carrasco is easily one of Europe’s most exciting prospects. Simply put, YFC is the type of player you think you are when you are when you’re playing 5-a-sides.
Yet another member of Belgium’s génération dorée (golden generation) of world-class prospects, he first signed with his current club at the tender age of 16, and he hasn’t looked back in the near one hundred first-team games he has played for Monaco’s first-team since he first broke through the ranks at the Stade Louis-II.
Ferreira-Carrasco is now by far and away the most creative player in Jardim’s squad, having created seven assists in Ligue 1 so far this season, with only three players in Le Championnat having created more than him during the current campaign. He is also capable at having a go with shots from range, and this is one of the reasons why he has a goal average at Monaco in all competitions of a goal in around every five games.
YFC is the type of player who can change the tide of games and the level of consistency in his performances in his last three seasons has been extremely impressive. Tonight’s match will serve this talented 21-year-old with the perfect opportunity to show the footballing world what is he made of on the highest level.
Anthony Martial – Centre Forward
As I alluded to earlier about the similarities between Bernardo Silva and a certain Argentine international, comparisons with legends in football can sometimes be unbearable for the players who are unlucky enough to be associated with them. However, in recent months a poignant comparison between Monaco’s Anthony Martial and a certain Thierry Henry has surfaced.
Like the former France World Cup winner, Martial grew up in the southern suburbs or banlieue of Paris, before moving to the south of the country to start his club career. After a short spell at Lyon, in a similar fashion to Henry he eventually began to make a name for himself within Monaco’s starting line-up and his recent red-hot form has got all of France talking about the incredibly bright future he has ahead of him.
Arsenal and Everton have both reportedly emerged as potential suitors for Martial in the future, and for those who watch Ligue 1 every week, it’s not surprising that Monaco’s number twenty-three has drawn scouts to his games. The 19-year-old is an extremely exciting prospect, and his seven goals in France’s top-flight this season have caused many Monaco fans to forget about Radamel Falcao’s absence while on loan at Manchester United.
Martial is an instinctive finisher and he is capable of scoring with either foot, as well as providing his side with a serious aerial threat. His incredible left-footed thunderbolt volley against Caen, which could yet be one of the goals of the season, seemed to encapsulate perfectly the type of quality that he is capable of demonstrating when called upon.
In addition to his goal-scoring ability, the 19-year-old is also extremely capable at holding the ball up for his team, and he has also assisted in Ligue 1 three times for Monaco this season, highlighting the fact that he can easily be considered to be a very rounded player.
Good strikers are notorious for how ruthless they can be in front of goal when they are in good form, and it is likely that the Juventus back-line will have to be extremely vigilant of Martial’s threat if they are to prevent him from scoring tonight.