Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain travel to title rivals AS Monaco on Sunday in a clash that could shape the outcome of this year’s chase for Le Championnat.
Laurent Blanc’s men are five points clear of their principality rivals, so a possible eight-point gap depends on the final result at the Stade Louis II this weekend.
Current champions PSG will be without one of their two star strikers, as Edinson Cavani is out injured. However, Claudio Ranieri’s hosts will also be missing Radamel Falcao for the showdown, as the Colombian forward recovers from knee surgery.
To help Les Monegasques replace Falcao, Dimitar Berbatov has arrived, while PSG new boy Yohan Cabaye is still waiting to make his first start since his late January move.
A Monaco win could re-launch their title ambitions, while a PSG victory would almost certainly extinguish them. With so much at stake, Ligue 1 is set for the next instalment of what is rapidly becoming France’s most important fixture.
Coming into the clash, PSG have won three of their four league games so far in 2014, while Monaco have won two of their four. Neither side has suffered a league defeat, although the capital club have already crashed out of the Coupe de France to Montpellier HSC.
Traditionally, this is a fixture in which the Parisians do not fare well. In 39 visits to the Stade Louis II, PSG have won just four times.
It was all the way back in 2007 when the three-time Ligue 1 champions last won a league match in Monaco. However, three years later the two did meet in the Coupe de France final, with PSG winning despite their poor record away from the Parc des Princes.
Sunday will be the first time in almost three years that the two sides have met in the principality for a league game after ASM’s two-season absence from top-flight football ended with promotion last campaign.
Monaco’s star man Falcao will obviously be a big miss for the hosts, not only on the pitch but off it. There will likely be less interest in the game, certainly from abroad, with one of the league’s most recognisable stars absent from this high-profile meeting.
However, there is still plenty talent on display, and one of the more intriguing features of this encounter is that it is the first match for which Berbatov, the Colombian’s replacement, is available.
The Bulgarian arrived on transfer deadline day, sealing a loan move from English Premier League side Fulham. Berbatov admitted at his unveiling earlier this week that former Manchester United teammate Patrice Evra helped to persuade him to make the move, per ESPN FC.
However, his status at the club is a controversial issue at present.
On Thursday, L’Equipe (h/t ESPN FC) claimed that his move to Monaco was a permanent one after Fulham released the player, not a loan as initially stated.
Regardless of whether or not it was a full transfer, the player will be plying his trade in Ligue 1 until the summer and is faced with the task of filling Falcao’s shoes starting on Sunday.
Although El Tigre was not at his prolific best while fit this season, Berbatov faces a difficult task to better his nine league goals with Ranieri’s team struggling to maximise their creative talents at times.
Part of the reason for that is an increased vulnerability in defence, something that the Italian sought to fix late in the transfer window with the signings of Aymen Abdennour from Toulouse and Elderson Uwa Echiejile from Portuguese side Braga.
The champions, on the other hand, only brought in French international midfielder Yohan Cabaye from Newcastle United last month, but it was a much-needed boost in a position that was previously lacking depth.
Monaco’s primary task will be to stop PSG’s prolific attacker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as the Swede edges closer to equalling last season’s 30-goal haul for the capital club. The 32-year-old currently has 18 league goals and nine assists, leading the league for both and even pulling away from teammate Cavani in recent weeks.
While the hosts have plenty of players capable of dominating the game, not least creative Colombian James Rodriguez and Portuguese schemer Joao Moutinho, Les Monegasques are still arguably lacking an Ibrahimovic equivalent.
The talismanic striker was the key figure in PSG’s 2-1 win over FC Nantes that took them to the Coupe de la Ligue final on Tuesday, scoring twice.
In that sort of form, the match may well be decided by whether or not Berbatov and his new teammates can limit Ibrahimovic’s influence and insatiable current appetite.
Last time out it finished 1-1 in the French capital, with Monaco fighting back from one goal down to claim a draw thanks to Falcao’s equaliser. Both sides are in better shape now, and Monaco are crucially more familiar with one another ahead of this next clash.
In a potential winner-takes-all scenario, a PSG triumph makes the game much more important than the first encounter between two of Europe’s richest clubs.
The spectacle will be slightly poorer in that Falcao and Cavani will not be involved, detracting somewhat from the array of star talent on display, but there will still be more than enough ability to ensure that the game lives up to its marquee billing.
A Monaco victory would re-open the title race, underlining this season’s two-horse race for the title, but a PSG win would take them further clear of their hosts and allow the chasing pack to catch up with the principality outfit.
Who will seize the advantage?
*All statistics courtesy of Ligue1.com.