AS Monaco’s titanic top-two clash with Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1 on Sunday has the potential to be a title decider. Laurent Blanc’s men come into the game with a five-point lead at the top of Le Championnat, but Les Monegasques can close that gap to just two points with a win.
PSG can pull eight points clear if they emerge triumphant though and that gap, with just 14 matches remaining, could prove insurmountable for Claudio Ranieri’s side.
The stakes are high ahead of the encounter and, although there will still be plenty of talent on show all over the pitch, there will be two major absences.
Monaco’s Colombian striker Radamel Falcao has been out injured for the past few weeks and is set to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury picked up last month. PSG’s prolific Uruguayan marksman Edinson Cavani has also been ruled out after suffering a hamstring problem in the 2-0 win over Girondins de Bordeaux last week.
Despite that, both sides are unbeaten in the league in 2014 and come into this clash in better shape than they approached their first meeting of the season back in September.
PSG are in better form, while Monaco are now crucially more familiar with one another thanks to their relatively new side developing some chemistry together.
Here are some of the key battles that will shape Sunday’s encounter at the Stade Louis II.
Arguably the most important battle on Sunday will be between Monaco’s midfield and PSG’s.
Laurent Blanc’s preferred three-man unit has become a permanent fixture in the capital club’s formation, while opposite number Claudio Ranieri is only just getting to grips with his abundance of riches in the middle.
With Jeremy Toulalan returning from injury, the hosts will likely go with the Frenchman, compatriot Geoffrey Kondogbia and Portuguese schemer Joao Moutinho playing just behind creative Colombian James Rodriguez.
Assuming that all three start, Toulalan, Kondogbia and Moutinho’s battle with Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti, or possibly Yohan Cabaye, will be the defining battle in this clash. When PSG win the fight for dominance in the middle, the champions invariably go on to win their games.
If Monaco can prevent Blanc’s star midfielders from dictating the pace of the game, then Les Monegasques could upset PSG.
The most creative presence in Monaco’s team is Colombian international James Rodriguez. The 22-year-old has three goals and nine assists to his name so far this campaign and is the only player in Ligue 1 able to match Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s prolific ability to lay on goals.
If PSG want to limit the threat of Claudio Ranieri’s side, then they need to keep Rodriguez quiet. Since the Italian openly criticised the former FC Porto man’s form in October, the South American star has been in superb form and has taken to his new playmaker role with ease.
Because of his ability to step out of defence without being drawn out of position, ball-playing Brazilian captain Thiago Silva will likely be the player charged with the task of shackling Rodriguez.
The PSG man’s recent form will be a slight concern for Blanc though, particularly given the threat posed by Monaco from set pieces.
Les Monegasques will target the champions from every dead ball situation that they find themselves in, hoping to force a mistake or to capitalise on the lacklustre organisation that was evident in the recent Coupe de France defeat to Montpellier HSC and Ligue 1 draw with EA Guingamp.
Sunday’s clash will also throw up an enticing battle out wide between one of French football’s most in-form wide men in PSG’s Lucas Moura and Monaco’s impressive left-back Layvin Kurzawa.
After a stop-start first few months this season, Brazilian international Moura has gradually started to cement himself in Laurent Blanc’s plans. Edinson Cavani’s injury has also helped, enabling the 21-year-old to enjoy consecutive starting appearances on the right.
In Kurzawa though, the Selecao star will be tested by one of Ligue 1’s revelations this season.
The 21-year-old French left-back is a marauding presence on the left, but he will need to be more disciplined defensively in order to try to contain Moura. Despite scoring four goals so far this season from his full-back berth, defending is not Kurzawa’s strongest suit and Lucas could pin him back.
How this battle evolves could shape the outcome of the match, with Kurzawa’s attacking impetus a key feature in Monaco’s recent results.
All eyes will be on Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the Stade Louis II on Sunday.
Following his breathtaking opening goal against FC Nantes in the Coupe de la Ligue on Tuesday, Monaco were reminded that the Swede can score from anywhere on the pitch. The 32-year-old raised his game when the two sides met in Paris back in September and he will likely do so again.
Charged with the task of limited his influence on the game will be veteran duo Ricardo Carvalho and Eric Abidal who, although immensely experienced, do not boast the same physicality as Ibrahimovic.
Keeping PSG’s talismanic striker in check for an entire 90 minutes will be a tall order and Ranieri might even see fit to call upon new signing Aymen Abdennour for the task instead. The Tunisian international has previous with Zlatan after the pair’s ill-tempered clash when PSG hosted Toulouse in September.
However, Abdennour did an excellent job of silencing the champions’ 18-goal top scorer and he could do so again if handed his debut.
Ibrahimovic knows that without Edinson Cavani in the side, the goalscoring burden once again rests on his shoulders and the towering striker will not want to disappoint after his midweek heroics.
Should he feature against PSG, new Monaco signing Dimitar Berbatov could prove to be the difference between victory and defeat for Claudio Ranieri’s side.
Thiago Silva is likely to be keeping a close eye on James Rodriguez, so Alex will either face Berbatov, Emmanuel Riviere, Valere Germain or Anthony Martial. The latter three will fancy their chances in a foot race with the cumbersome Brazilian, but Alex’s physicality is his main strength.
He may well struggle up against a player as intelligent as Berbatov though.
The mercurial Bulgarian is adept at positioning himself well and ghosting into the penalty area without defenders noticing. Although he will not be able to outpace Alex, he will certainly be able to out-think him.
However, Berbatov’s main task will be to replace Radamel Falcao at the tip of the Monaco attack and he will need to quickly adapt to whatever service the likes of Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho can provide in a game where Monaco are likely to create a limited number of chances.