Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco meet at the Parc des Princes in Ligue 1 on Sunday for the first match of what is expected to become an intense rivalry over the coming years in French football.
Going into the titanic showdown, both sides are in good form. However, the principality outfit arguably shade their capital city rivals in current form and sit two points clear of their hosts going into the game.
It is worth bearing in mind that this is a game that Les Monegasques generally fare well in, having won 16 times and lost just 12 in 37 encounters in the French capital (stats via Ligue 1.com).
Claudio Ranieri’s side have form and history on their side, but PSG have been playing together for longer and have played in big matches as a team already.
This match will be one of ASM’s first major tests since the arrival of their star talent, although they have already beaten Olympique de Marseille away from home this season.
How can we expect both sides to organise such a vast array of talent on Sunday?
For Laurent Blanc’s home side, it will be one of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-2-2 formation similar to last season’s successful formula under Carlo Ancelotti. It will not be absolutely clear until once the game has kicked off, given how similar the two approaches are.
It all comes down to how Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani function together up front on the night.
Despite Blanc regularly starting El Matador out wide with Ibra in the middle and one of Lucas Moura or Ezequiel Lavezzi on the opposite flank to Cavani, more often than not it ends up a loose 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2.
Le President has to avoid this happening.
When it does, PSG lose their creative link between the midfield and the attack, something that could prove fatal against a team with as strong a midfield as Monaco’s.
Ibrahimovic should arguably occupy a deeper role to act as the go-between, allowing both the midfield and defence to retain their original shape and not forcing one of three essentially defensive midfielders to play an unorthodox wider role.
The Ibrahimovic-Cavani partnership is already creating goals, even if there are still some teething problems.
A bigger headache for the French champions this weekend will come in defence, where Marquinhos looks likely to step in to cover for Alex according to L’Equipe (h/t ESPN FC). That is provided that the latter does not recover from his thigh injury in time.
To shackle Radamel Falcao, Blanc must decide whether he prefers the strength and experience of Alex or the mobility and enthusiasm of Marquinhos alongside the calm but commanding presence of Brazil captain Thiago Silva.
Extra consideration must be made for Monaco’s wide men Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Lucas Ocampos, who have been outstanding so far this season.
PSG’s marauding full-backs have become a feature of their style this season with Maxwell and Gregory van der Wiel bombing down the flanks to aid the likes of Lavezzi, Moura or Javier Pastore, allowing Blanc to keep faith in the three-man midfield.
Given the severity of the threat posed by Carrasco and Ocampos’ pace, this will not be possible on Sunday, and severe tactical discipline will be needed. This will put more pressure on PSG’s three-man midfield of Blaise Matuidi, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta.
It is a solid trio and one highly capable of recovering the ball. But in that format, there is no thrust from deep and little creativity, which is dangerous when up against a team as talented as Monaco.
In order to negate this, Blanc could consider letting the erratic Verratti off the leash somewhat and allowing his playmaking ability to come to the fore, also bridging the gap between defence and midfield.
In the red corner, Ranieri has preferred a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 approach since the start of the season. That formation is arguably designed to get the best out of Falcao, while also accommodating Monaco’s other attacking talents.
The problem is that not all of the principality outfit’s new signings have been able to play together yet.
Ahead of the PSG clash, midfielder Jeremy Toulalan has already been ruled out injured, which is a massive blow for Les Monegasques. His absence means that new arrival Geoffrey Kondogbia will almost certainly continue in midfield after making his debut against FC Lorient.
So much depends on whether or not James Rodriguez is finally ready to play from the start once more, having featured as a substitute twice since making his full debut in the 2-0 opening-day win at Girondins de Bordeaux.
Where does Rodriguez figure when Toulalan is fit though?
That is something Ranieri will have to decide when the opportunity presents itself. But it would be harsh to drop one of Carrasco or Ocampos after their starts to the season in order to accommodate the Colombian.
Instead, Rodriguez could be used through the middle behind Falcao where we have seen Joao Moutinho deployed since his return to fitness.
That way, the Portuguese can move back into the midfield alongside Kondogbia and at the expense of Mounir Obbadi, who will likely drop out once everyone is fully fit. That would allow Rodriguez, Carrasco and Ocampos to feature together at the top of the pitch.
Toulalan’s absence is a big blow for Monaco, more so than it was against Lorient last week, because the Frenchman provides a balancing presence. In many ways, he is similar to PSG’s Thiago Motta but younger and less experienced.
Despite his absence, the midfield is arguably up to the task.
The visitor’s defence, so strong thus far, could come under heavy scrutiny on Sunday up against the firepower of Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Lavezzi and Moura. Ricardo Carvalho and Eric Abidal are vastly experienced players but because of their age, they are limited physically.
Perhaps it is a chance for summer signing Nicolas Isimat-Mirin, although Ranieri is likely to deem him too inexperienced.
The midfield will need to shield that potentially vulnerable back line more than ever.
Fabinho and Layvin Kurzawa, two players who have impressed greatly so far this season, add width in defence. Their roles are massively important to Monaco’s style of play, and because PSG are not exactly solid on flanks at the back, there is an opportunity for Monaco to push forward and cause some damage there.
Falcao is not at his best yet, despite scoring four goals in five matches so far this season.
Should he be able to enjoy the sort of service expected of Rodriguez and Moutinho on Sunday, we could see El Tigre’s best moments in a Monaco shirt so far.
This match will be won in the midfield, where both sides are very strong.
Given PSG’s tendency to dominate possession from the kickoff though, it might prove more difficult for Monaco to get their more creative men in the middle on the ball.
In Falcao, Ibrahimovic and Cavani, there is a potential feast of goal-scoring action to be enjoyed, but so much of that will depend on who receives the better service.
Defensively, despite Monaco having conceded one goal less at present, PSG look the stronger and more solid team.
In order to overcome a back line that is difficult to breach, Ranieri will need another excellent wide performance from the likes of Carrasco, Ocampos, Kurzawa and Fabinho in order to get in behind Silva’s troops.
So much in football fails to translate from paper onto the pitch, but without Toulalan in the midfield for Monaco, PSG appear to possess more authority and therefore have the slight upper hand.