Aafter their inspirational performances in the run-in last season, when the league title was in play until the very end of the campaign, Monaco and Niko Kovac seemed like a match made in heaven. Kovac had shaken off the disappointment of his spell with Bayern Munich and was getting a tune out of Monaco’s young players, such as Youssouf Fofana, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Sofiane Diop, as well as veterans Kevin Volland and Wissam Ben Yedder.
Their league form was patchy at the start of this season and a cruel elimination in the final qualifying round for the Champions League did Kovac no favours, but his players were learning how to deal with the dual demands of European and domestic football. Despite leading them to top spot in a tough Europa League group, Kovac was dismissed by the club mid-season in a decision that, for many, smacked of impatience.
In came the Belgian manager Philippe Clement, who was relatively unknown in France. He was a vastly experienced and successful player, having made his name as a hard-nosed defender at Club Brugge and racked up 38 caps for his country. After calling time on his playing career, Clement worked his way through the youth ranks at Club Brugge, ultimately becoming assistant manager. His first spell as a manager, however, did not come at the club where he had spent nearly 20 years, but at Waasland-Beveren, who appointed him in 2017.
He did not stay for long. Clement’s impressive start to the season with Waasland-Beveren earned him a move to Genk, where he won the league title the following season and developed talents such as Ruslan Malinovskyi, Leandro Trossard and Mbwana Samatta. Rather than experiencing European football with Genk, he returned to Club Brugge and won the title for a second successful season, his side conceding just 14 goals in the process.
Another title followed last season as Clement developed a reputation as one of the brightest managers in Europe. Achieving consistent success in Belgium is tough given that clubs have to sell players each summer. The make-up of Monaco’s squad – largely young but with a few key veterans in the form of Volland and Ben Yedder – suggested that Clement would be a natural fit, even if Kovac would be a hard act to follow.
Things started slowly enough for the new manager, with a goalless draw against Nantes in January, but the team found some form and went on a run to the Coupe de France semi-finals. Then it looked as if the wheels were coming off. They dropped points against struggling Lorient and Bordeaux in the league, were eliminated from the Europa League by Braga, and lost to Nantes on penalties in the Coupe de France.
When PSG arrived in town just before the international break, Monaco had won just one of their previous eight matches, albeit an impressive display against Marseille. Clement had only been in the job for a few months, but was the step up from Belgian football proving too much? His players answered that question emphatically, demolishing PSG 3-0 and then picking up battling victories over Troyes and Metz.
Monaco went into their match with Rennes this weekend having won four of their previous five games. The Breton side were also on the up. They have been banging in the goals recently and positioning themselves as the team best placed to join (presumably) Marseille in next season’s Champions League.
Monaco have not travelled particularly well this season under either a trip north to face Bruno Génésio’s team on a holiday weekend was among the toughest challenges they could have faced. Indeed, Flavien Tait opened the scoring for Rennes after just four minutes. It seemed like it would be more of the same for the hosts, who would surely have looked at Marseille’s daunting trip to PSG on Sunday as an opportunity to gain ground in the race for the Champions League places.
However, Monaco kept fighting and soon had an equaliser thanks to a brilliant switch of play from Aleksandr Golovin, the Russian picking out Vanderson, who scored a sumptuous goal with the outside of his boot. Ben Yedder gave the visitors the lead after the interval and Myron Boadu made it 3-1 with 10 minutes to play. Martin Terrier scored a penalty for Rennes in stoppage time, but the result was never really in doubt.
Crucially, Monaco won the game thanks to players who had not figured much in the season’s early going. Golovin has been dogged by injuries for most of the season, but he has started in Monaco’s last four games, all of which they have won. Vanderson, a player about whom little was known before he arrived in January, continues to take to Ligue 1 like a fish to water, having displaced Gelson Martins on the right wing.
Even Boadu, who struggled for form and fitness after signing for the club last summer, has looked reborn under Clement. The manager has waxed lyrical about his impact and potential, emphasizing the importance of having goalscoring substitutes – no team has scored more goals from the bench this season than Monaco – and that praise has burnished the player’s confidence.
Another stern test looms in the form of the Riviera Derby against Nice in midweek but, with Clement being patient with his young players and rotating his squad adeptly, Monaco have a real chance of qualifying for the Champions League, proof that taking the (slightly) longer view in football can pay real dividends.
Lyon’s 6-1 thumping of relegation-threated Bordeaux will be cold comfort for their supporters on the back of their humbling elimination in the Europa League on Thursday, but they still have hopes of qualifying for Europe next season. It’s hard to see Lyon catching Marseille, but the other sides above them in the table have all looked vulnerable at times this season. Strasbourg still have to play PSG, Marseille and Rennes before the end of the season, so Lyon have a chance of reaching the top six.
Marseille had extra motivation to win Le Classique in Paris on Sunday, having seen Rennes and Strasbourg drop points earlier in the weekend but, alas, it was not to be for Jorge Sampaoli’s team, who lost 2-1. Marseille were back to playing with Dimitri Payet as a false nine in the absence of Arkadiusz Milik. The big Pole and his manager have not always seen eye-to-eye, but his 20 goals this season have been massive as no other player has offered a consistent threat from open play. Champions League football should be just about assured for Marseille but, with a tricky finish to the season, and European matches to come as well, his return to fitness is eagerly anticipated.