PARIS — Only a few Monaco fans expected the team to return from London with a 3-1 win over Arsenal in the Champions League. Even fewer believe the Principality club can now mount a last-minute challenge for the French title.
But with 12 matches remaining before the end of the season, Monaco still has a mathematical chance of winning the championship. Ahead of a crucial match against defending champion Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday, fourth-place Monaco lags 11 points behind leader Lyon, with a match in hand, as the race for the title remains wide-open.
PSG trails the seven-time champions by two points, with Marseille in third place, two points further back.
Monaco's hermetic defense this season has helped the club to cope with the departures of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez, although a poor start to the season forced the team to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the leaders.
Monaco's profligacy and lack of attacking spark has long been a source of worries for coach Leonardo Jardim, but he seems to have found the winning formula. Monaco has won its last three matches in all competitions with a combination of grit and style, scoring seven goals and conceding only two.
Even with a tem depleted of half of its regular starters, Jardim gave a masterclass of efficient football to Arsenal counterpart Arsene Wenger in the first leg of the last 16. And given that PSG will travel to Monaco without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Monaco is now hoping for a big win that would mark a turning point in a lively season.
Here are some things to know about this weekend's matches:
Despite limited offensive options, Jardim has succeeded in his task of fine-tuning a well-balanced squad filled with talented youngsters. Among them are 19-year-old forward Anthony Martial and winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco.
Gifted with huge physical qualities and technical skills, the highly-praised Martial set up Dimitar Berbatov's goal against Arsenal and slotted home the equalizer in added time against PSG in the corresponding match last October.
Martial's fine performance in London drew comparisons with Thierry Henry in the French press, but he remains behind the aging Berbatov in Jardim's pecking order as the Bulgarian veteran's experience will be a precious asset in the closing stages of the season.
The 21-year-old Ferreira Carrasco is also at the heart of Monaco's rebuilding project. The Belgian winger, who has extended his deal with the club until June 2019, is fast and always dangerous on the break. He replaced Berbatov with 15 minutes to go on Wednesday and scored Monaco's important third goal.
NO IBRA? NO PROBLEM
Paris Saint-Germain has three matches to play before taking on Chelsea in the Champions League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be missing two of them, a double-header against Monaco in the league and the French Cup.
Ibrahimovic, the league's third-best striker this season with 11 goals, is serving a two-game ban following an altercation with a Saint-Etienne player and a third yellow card in 10 matches.
PSG coach Laurent Blanc should not be scratching his head too long as the in-form Edinson Cavani proved decisive earlier this season when Ibrahimovic was sidelined by a heel injury. The Uruguay striker also earned PSG a 1-1 draw with Chelsea when he scored the equalizer after threatening throughout.
Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas can't help taking to Twitter to lash out at his rivals. But Aulas might have gone too far recently when he answered in provocative fashion to Saint-Etienne fans he called "autistics" and criticized referee Clemet Turpin for his supposed mistakes during Lyon's 1-1 draw with PSG earlier this month.
Aulas was reproaching Turpin for allowing Ibrahimovic to retake a penalty kick and score after his initial effort was stopped.
Aulas' mind games could backfire at him, with the French federation's ethics committee now expected to summon him.
Aulas was suspended for one month by the league's disciplinary committee in 2012 for contesting a referee's decisions.
Lyon travels to Lille on Saturday looking to extend its unbeaten run to 12 league games.
BATSHUAYI ECLIPSING GIGNAC
After scoring two goals in the space of three minutes in a 2-2 draw at Saint-Etienne, super-sub Michy Batshuahy is threatening Andre-Pierre Gignac's status at Marseille.
While the France international is not as sharp as he was during the first half of the season, the 21-year-old Belgian striker bought from Liege last year is blossoming into a clever and skilled forward with a natural instinct for goals.
It remains to be seen if Batshuahy will be given a starting spot against Caen, as Marseille coach Marcelo Bielsa refuses to choose between the two.
"Gignac really knows how to play on the flanks, he does that very well. Batshuayi is tracking back to play with the midfielders," Bielsa said. "They have different profiles, and it doesn't take anything away from their main quality, which is their sense for goal."
Marseille's main concerns at the moment come in the defensive sector, with Cameroon center back Nicolas Nkoulou out for at least six weeks with a left knee injury and Bielsa short of options to replace him.
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