Monaco already under pressure early into title defense
PARIS (AP) — Defending champion Monaco’s trip to Lyon on Friday already feels like a turning point in what is shaping as a difficult season in France.
Monaco started brightly with four straight wins, but came down to earth when it lost at Nice 4-0. Monaco dropped more points after conceding a 90th-minute goal in a home draw with Montpellier, allowing unbeaten Paris Saint-Germain to open up a three-point lead.
Despite needing a win against Lyon, Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim will rest star striker Radamel Falcao.
Falcao played in a World Cup qualifier for Colombia on Tuesday and was not expected back in Monaco until Thursday. Jardim declined to take a risk on Falcao’s health by playing him so soon, and did not even put him on the bench.
Falcao has 12 league goals, which is four more than last season’s league top scorer Edinson Cavani has for PSG, and six more than PSG’s Neymar. Falcao is close to the level that made him one of the world’s best strikers when scoring 52 league goals for Atletico Madrid from 2011-13.
Falcao netted 21 league goals for Monaco last season, forming a prolific partnership with teen striker Kylian Mbappe, who has moved to PSG.
Mbappe was one of several key players from last season to be sold over the summer. Playmaker Bernardo Silva and left back Benjamin Mendy joined Manchester City, holding midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko went to Chelsea, and versatile forward Valere Germain signed for Marseille.
This has massively increased the dependency on Falcao, although he has thrived on it with two hat tricks.
“We’re not reliant on one player,” Monaco attacking midfielder Rony Lopes said. “We have a quality squad.”
But the record shows Falcao is papering over the cracks, because no other player has more than one league goal.
This is a far cry from last season, when several players scored regularly in a side that racked up 107 league goals among more than 150 in all competitions. Monaco also reached the Champions League semifinals but has only one point from two group games so far.
To be a genuine contender on both fronts, Monaco has to show it can play without Falcao in case he’s injured.
Jardim faces a difficult task in choosing Friday’s lineup. Offseason signing Stevan Jovetic is out injured after taking a knock to his thigh playing for Montenegro, and Keita Balde or Adama Diakhaby is likely to start in attack.
Balde has made only brief substitute appearances since joining from Lazio, while Diakhaby has netted once from four starts.
“They’re hungry to play. It’s an opportunity and a good test for them,” Jardim said. “The calendar is congested, and from now on there will be more opportunities for those who haven’t played much.”
Among the new players, Lopes has the unenviable task of replacing Silva. But the 21-year-old Brazilian, who was on loan at Lille last season, has started every game and shown glimpses of his skill and trickery.
“There are lots of new players here, and they’ve needed time to adapt,” Lopes said.
The problem for Monaco is that there is no time to lose.
PSG is setting a relentless pace, and the new-look attack of Neymar-Cavani-Mbappe will only get stronger as it beds in.
Hatem Ben Arfa’s dream move to Paris Saint-Germain is going from bad to worse.
The Parisian-born Ben Arfa joined last season, after scoring 17 league goals for Nice and regaining a place in the France squad.
But after starting only five league games last season, he was put on the transfer market as PSG sought to raise funds for a huge summer spending spree.
Ben Arfa, however, refused to leave unless PSG bought out his contract. The club responded by banishing him to train with the reserves.
The skillful winger did make a rare appearance on Wednesday, albeit in a charity match.
He played alongside France coach Didier Deschamps, who recalled him in 2016, and Laurent Blanc, the national coach when Ben Arfa played at the 2012 European Championship. The charity game will have served only as a reminder of how far his career has nosedived.
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Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire