Wissam Ben Yedder’s hat-trick for Monaco against Nantes on Sunday evening at the Stade-Louis II was a brilliant repudiation of Didier Deschamps’ decision to drop him from the France squad last month. A regular for two years, the diminutive Ben Yedder has won 19 caps under Deschamps and, while he’s only scored three goals for his country, his imperious form in Ligue 1 and the fact that he offers France a different type of attacking option made him a likely member of the World Cup squad.
This season, though, Ben Yedder’s form had drifted. He failed to find the net in his first five league games and did not break that duck until the weekend before the international break, when he scored late on against Reims. His form mirrored his club’s. After a brilliant win at Strasbourg on the opening day, Monaco did not win any of their next four league matches. Their 1-1 draw at the Parc des Princes was a decent result, as was their gritty stalemate when down to 10 men against Rennes, but their losses to Troyes and Lens were worrying, particularly as Lyon and Marseille made flying starts.
The departure of Aurélien Tchouaméni had a big impact on the team’s ability to play with the dynamism they showed last season. However, the absence through injury of Myron Boadu and Kevin Volland (who came off the bench on Sunday), along with an inconsistent start for Takumi Minamino, meant that – despite the work done by the impressive Breel Embolo – Ben Yedder’s scoring was most keenly missed, doubly so given his role as captain. Being asked to play as a lone striker at times did not make things any easier but, with just one goal in more than five hours of league football, he was hardly making his case to Deschamps.
With his club form drifting, Ben Yedder was left out of the France squad for their Nations League matches against Austria and Denmark, with Christopher Nkunku and Randal Kolo Muani drafted in and Olivier Giroud also picked.
The riposte from the famously taciturn Ben Yedder – who scored 32 times for Monaco last season – started early against Nantes, with his elegant sixth-minute chip, following an inventive header from Embolo, extending the hosts’ lead to 2-0 . The pair have taken some time to acclimatise to each other, but manager Philippe Clement was effusive in his praise for them after the match, saying: “It’s important to create complementarity between two players, and this was the case today.”
Aleksandr Golovin set up Ben Yedder’s second goal just before the half-hour mark, the striker doing what he does best and finding the top corner with his first touch. He then added a third from the penalty spot midway through the second half, sealing the result for Clement’s men, with a late own goal the only blemish on Monaco’s 4-1 win.
Monaco are still only fifth, though, so have work to do. The four sides above them in the table – PSG, Marseille, Lorient and Lens – all won this weekend. But Monaco have a kind run of fixtures before the World Cup, including matches against a leaky Montpellier side, Clermont and Angers; their game against Marseille in mid-November is the only one that looks dangerous.
It’s not all been smooth sailing for Monaco, but in the last few matches they – and their captain – have looked far more like the team we wrote about earlier in the season. What has turned into a surprisingly challenging Europa League group will offer no respite but, with Volland and defender Guillermo Maripán both fit again, Monaco look as well equipped as any team in France to finish in the top three.
For a few moments on Saturday evening, it looked as if PSG would drop points for just the second time this season. Nice were not expected to hold them to a draw but Gaëtan Laborde’s equaliser early in the second half was shaping up to be a momentous goal, especially as Les Aiglons badly needed a result given their recent form. It wasn’t to be, however, Kylian Mbappé coming off the bench to slot home the winner five minutes from time. In his first match without his vaunted attacking trio available from the start, this wobble will have been unnerving for Christophe Galtier but the result is what matters. Mbappé once again proved to be PSG’s trump card and the decision to leave him out of the starting XI means he is rested before the trip to Benfica in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Incredibly, had PSG not won, they would have shared top spot with Marseille. Yes, Marseille came second last season and were expected to tussle for a European place, but with key defenders Luan Peres, William Saliba and Boubacar Kamara all leaving in the summer, Igor Tudor’s side looked a shambles in pre-season. They have been anything but since, though, with their squad showing impressive balance and depth. They dispatched Angers easily on Friday without really breaking a sweat. The season is long and the Champions League looks (again) to be a stumbling block, but on the evidence so far, Tudor deserves a rather hearty mea culpa from his doubters.
Finally, a word for Rennes. After a couple of early season defeats to Lens and Lorient, Bruno Génésio’s team has now gone seven games unbeaten across all competitions. With summer signing Arnaud Kalimuendo fit and scoring again at the weekend, they look sharper by the week. Add a defence that’s the fourth-best in the league, and the departures of Laborde and Nayef Aguerd this summer look increasingly like irrelevances. The Breton side are poised for another tilt at the European places.