Big-spending Monaco contending, but Ligue 1 still PSG's domain
It was the Paris Saint-Germain Foundation gala dinner last week. All the first team players were there, in their black-tie outfits, laughing as a round of golf with coach Laurent Blanc was sold for €7,000, one of the cheapest lots of the evening. The man who bought it was an English television executive who may not know that Blanc's English is so poor that when Sir Alex Ferguson calls him up, they speak in French rather than English.
The players only got involved in the bidding when an exclusive watch, not on the market until March, was up for sale, and it fetched slightly less than the €22,000 for which Zlatan Ibrahimovic's cleats went. The mood was relaxed, despite a recent dip in results that saw PSG crash out of the French Cup and drop points to Guingamp.
Last week's 2-0 win against Bordeaux restored normal order and allowed PSG to extend its lead at the top to five points over Monaco, which came from behind twice to draw with Lorient. On Sunday night, the top two will face each other and would secretly admit that if the season were to end now, both would be happy. After all, second place for Monaco would be a decent achievement given this is its first season back in the top flight after promotion.
It is still at least one year behind PSG in terms of 'the project' and has done well to take advantage of an under-par Marseille this season and a post-November slump from Lille to move into contention for automatic Champions League qualification.
Just look at PSG 12 months ago: there was concern over Zlatan Ibrahimovic's future and Thiago Silva was tempted by Barcelona. But now the squad has a togetherness and complicity all built around Ibra, the soul of the squad and the heartbeat of the team. Even at the gala dinner, players were taking their cues from him; seeing him laugh and joke his way through the evening seemed like tacit permission for them to do the same.
Don't be fooled by PSG's little dip after Christmas, when it lost in the Cup to Montpellier and only drew 1-1 at Guingamp. The biggest knock on the side is that it struggles to be strong against the smaller teams -- not something that will happen against Monaco. But when it does click, this PSG side is special. After the recent 5-0 win over Nantes, radio phone-ins were asking if this was the best team ever to play in Ligue 1.
And what of opponent Monaco, likely to be stuck for the season without record signing and top scorer Radamel Falcao after his knee injury that left him doubtful for the World Cup? The doom and gloom around the injury is something of a mirage. Falcao missed four games at the end of last year and Monaco won all of them.
His injury has given a chance to Anthony Martial, a highly-rated 17-year-old signed from Lyon, already described as 'the new Thierry Henry,' and also Valerie Germain, a homegrown striker outstanding in Ligue 2 last season, who scored in the win over Marseille two weeks ago.
As the end of the transfer window approached, the list of strikers linked to Monaco grew: Javier Hernandez, Alexandre Pato, Hulk, Pablo Osvaldo, Mirko Vucinic. None came, and it looked like Monaco would stick with the in-form Emmanuel Riviere alongside either Germain or Martial.
"You don't often see a great signing come off in the winter transfer window," former Monaco scout Stephane Pauwels told So Foot. "Making a winter transfer as an emergency is rarely a good idea."
That did not stop Monaco, on the last day of the window, from signing Dimitar Berbatov on a six-month loan from Fulham. Berbatov may be nothing like Falcao in his style or the way he plays (as So Foot, again, put it, "If Falcao is a romantic guitarist, Berba is the bastard son of Sonny in The Godfather III") but it at least shows the team's ambition.
Monaco is second in the table in part because of the team's defensive excellence, with 15 goals conceded in 23 games. But it also needs someone to put away the opportunities: Berbatov's arrival won't take the scoring burden off Riviere, but will create more space for the forward. The prospect of Berbatov and James Rodriguez playing behind a single, mobile, striker, could be dangerous. Even if Monaco beats PSG, the title is still the reigning champion's to lose.
"This season's title was decided before a ball was kicked, and it will go to PSG," coach Claudio Ranieri told the French press this week.
Mind games maybe, but he can point to PSG's greater budget for this season -- €430 million compared to Monaco's €130 million -- and the respective owners' total recruitment spend: €387 million at PSG, €220 million at Monaco.
In fact, despite the presence of oligarch owner Dmitry Rybolovlev, Monaco's numbers pale in comparison to PSG's: average attendance this season at Stade Louis II is 8,964 compared to PSG's 45,241. Monaco has around 123,000 twitter followers, compared to PSG's 1.04 million; and 470,000 Facebook likes, compared to PSG's 6.7 million.
These numbers don't determine titles of course, but they show how far Monaco has to go to compete with the big boys.
As FIFA TMS wrote in its fascinating annual study, the Global Transfer Market 2014, "the rise of the super-club" is a new driver in the transfer market. But there is already a sub-division emerging in the super-club class: the oligarch-owned model, which includes Monaco and Chelsea, and the gulf-state owned model, with PSG and Manchester City.
Last week, Jose Mourinho bemoaned City's resources and told a press conference that, "Financially, we can't compete."
Ranieri might think the same thing after Sunday night. He will have done his job if Monaco finish the season in second, but, given PSG's clout, it will be hard to improve on that next year.