Sunday’s Ligue 1 clash between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Nantes at the Parc des Princes is shaping up to be a fascinating encounter.
Not only does the fixture pit the French champions, who are threatening run away with this year's title, against the surprise package of the season so far, but it also poses an intriguing contrast of styles.
PSG will go into this match armed with the array of stars that the capital club’s ambitious owners, Qatar Sports Investments, have been able to assemble.
However, Nantes travel to the capital looking to put their faith once again in a side that is made up largely of modestly acquired players and homegrown talents.
On paper, it seems like a straightforward match for the hosts, but in reality it will be a tough challenge and should produce quite the spectacle.
Traditionally, Les Canaris are one of French football’s most successful clubs.
The Pays de la Loire-based club have eight Championnat titles to their name, with three more Coupe de France victories and three Trophee des Champions triumphs.
Nantes have also been UEFA Champions League semi-finalists once in 1996 and UEFA Cup Winners Cup semi-finalists once in 1980.
This impressive domestic record, for a relatively modest club that recently ended a four-year exile from the French top flight, is in stark contrast to PSG’s own shorter but reasonably well-decorated history.
Nantes have won the French title five more times than the Parisians’ current haul of three, although the present champions best them in both cups with eight Coupe de France and three Coupe de la Ligue trophies.
PSG have also fared better in Europe; winning the 1996 Cup Winners Cup as well as a 2001 UEFA Intertoto Cup title.
But while the side from the capital have always had the luxury of considerable financial backing in order to blend foreign talents with top-quality homegrown produce, Nantes have almost exclusively had to rely on the latter.
On the long list of instantly recognisable French footballers produced at the Stade de la Beaujoire is current national team coach Didier Deschamps.
Other 1998 World Cup winners Marcel Desailly and Christian Karembeu were also there, not to mention former PSG men Claude Makelele and Antoine Kombouare.
Those are just some of the players no longer in action.
Of those still playing, French internationals Mickael Landreau and Jeremy Toulalan are reminders of the strength of the Nantais youth academy, while Sylvain Armand only recently left PSG for Stade Rennais but started his career with Les Canaris.
However, PSG’s most notable youth products are not to be sniffed at.
Former French international Nicolas Anelka has played for a host of top European clubs, while Mamadou Sakho and Clement Chantome are current internationals for Les Bleus.
PSG do not boast the same calibre of World Cup-winning former students as Nantes though, but that is understandable for a club 27 years younger.
Where the three-time Ligue 1 winners do trump Sunday’s opponents though is in the glamour stakes.
PSG have never been short of pulling power, based in the City of Light, whereas Nantes have not always been able to ally their success with attracting the best foreign talent.
While PSG fans can relish the memories of Ronaldinho, Rai, Pauleta, Safet Susic and Jay-Jay Okocha, to mention just a few, Nantes supporters will have to content themselves with the likes of Colombian Mario Yepes (another former PSG man) and Romania's Viorel Moldovan.
That is without even mentioning today’s galaxy of stars available to coach Laurent Blanc.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Thiago Silva are just three of the plethora of marquee names that decorate the French champions’ stellar squad at present. Yet Nantes can only offer Filip Djordjevic, Alejandro Bedoya, a strong pool of domestic talent and a large Venezuelan contingent in reply.
Serbian marksman Djordjevic has actually been at the club for so long (since back in 2008, when he was just 20) that he was still able to benefit from the club’s productive youth system. The 26-year-old is by far the outstanding performer in the side though with eight league goals and two assists in 20 starts.
Bedoya, a current U.S. men's national team star, is another important player. The 26-year-old has scored three times in 12 starts and has impressed in his first six month in France.
Strong defender Papy Mison Djilobodji, rapid full-back Issa Cissokho and hard-working midfielder Lucas Deaux are just a few of the domestic talents in the current squad.
Venezuelans Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, Gabriel Cichero and Fernando Aristeguieta are the other main draws.
However, what Nantes lack in big names they make up for with their jeu à la nantaise (the famed Nantes style of football) and team spirit.
The Current Generation
The latest names off the production line in West France are Jordan Veretout and Adrien Trebel, two promising young French midfielders.
Veretout, a classy 20-year-old central-based player in the mould of former youth product Toulalan, won the FIFA U-20 World Cup with France last year and has become a regular fixture in Michel Der Zakarian’s side.
Trebel has struggled a little since Nantes made the step up from Ligue 2 at the end of last season but remains one of French football’s untapped talents.
In the hosts’ squad on Sunday would have been gifted 18-year-old midfielder Adrien Rabiot, a surprisingly mature and composed player who is already showing the potential to become a leading French international of the future.
Other youth academy talents such as Hervin Ongenda, Kingsley Coman and Mike Maignan have not had much of a sniff of first-team action so far this season, such is the strength of the squad.
However, U-20 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Alphonse Areola is out on loan at second-tier side RC Lens (now coached by PSG’s former player and coach Kombouare), with a number of other excellent prospects on loan all over Ligue 1.
Current first-teamers Jeremy Menez, Blaise Matuidi and Lucas Digne all grew up close to Paris, though, and have revealed themselves to be childhood PSG fans.
Heading into Sunday’s match, despite their impressive season so far, it is a tall order for Nantes to go to the Parc des Princes and win.
Der Zakarian’s side are sixth at present but will likely fancy their chances more when the two sides meet at the Stade de la Beaujoire in the Coupe de la Ligue semi-finals at the beginning of February.
Both matches promise to be quite a spectacle though, with Nantes famous for their passionate and lively supporters as well as their style of play from the 20th century.
A full house is expected in the French capital, and Les Canaris have already proved once this season that they are capable of stifling PSG, narrowly losing 2-1 at home to a late Ezequiel Lavezzi goal back in August.
Cavani netted the other goal in that game, and he is still looking for his first strike of 2014.
Blanc’s men looked jaded away at Ajaccio last weekend and were in need of the rest that they will be able to enjoy between Tuesday’s victory in Bordeaux and Sunday’s clash.
With PSG five points clear at the top of Ligue 1 already, can Nantes succeed where others have failed and hold PSG’s superstars back with a little help from their youth academy?
*All statistics thanks to ligue1.com.
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