All the pressure on PSG as Monaco & Nice challenge for title
ABS-CBN Sports on Dec 24, 2016 06:24 AM
FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016 file photo, Monaco's Thomas Lemar, centers, escapes CSKA's Pontus Wernbloom, left, and CSKA's Mario Fernandes during the Champions League Group E soccer match between Monaco and CSKA at the Louis II stadium in Monaco. Paris Saint-Germainís obsession with winning the Champions League has backfired at home. Heading into the winter break, the defending champion is already playing catch up and lags behind surprise league leader Nice. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
JEROME PUGMIRE, AP Sports Writer
PARIS (AP) — Paris Saint-Germain's obsession with Europe is seriously backfiring at home.
Heading into the winter break, the defending champion is already playing catch up and lags five points behind surprise league leader Nice.
Some contrast from last season, when PSG crushed all the competition for a second straight domestic treble.
The reason for the sharp change in fortunes can be directly attributed to a baffling managerial change.
Despite winning the league by a record 31 points, with his team netting 102 goals, Laurent Blanc was sacked for failing to get past the Champions League quarterfinals.
European glory has been Qatari owners QSI's dream since it took over the club in June, 2011. Blanc fell short of their lofty expectations and he was replaced in the summer by Unai Emery, who had led Sevilla to three straight Europa League titles.
But Emery has struggled to adapt and this has opened the door wide open for Monaco and Nice.
PSG faces a major fight to successfully defend the title it won so easily.
All the pressure is on Paris Saint-Germain, which needs to get its title bid going but also faces Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Monaco has shown that it can outscore any team in Europe's top leagues — netting a whopping 56 in 19 games — but Prince Albert's favorite side is prone to occasional lapses in defense.
Nice's bid for a first title since 1971 may be aided by the fact that is has no European football left to play, having been knocked out of the Europa League.
Nice also plays at home to PSG in the second part of the season.
PICK OF THE PLAYERS
Mario Balotelli has done very well for Nice with eight league goals in nine games and Monaco striker Radamel Falcao is getting somewhere back this best following two miserable seasons on the back of a serious knee injury.
But it is hard to overlook how impressive Edinson Cavani has been for Paris Saint-Germain.
Now that he is out of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's shadow, and finally playing in his preferred central striker's role, Cavani has been scoring freely.
He has 24 overall for a PSG side that would probably not even be in the top three if not for his goals.
Cavani is carrying PSG this season.
Attacking midfielder Thomas Lemar and 17-year-old winger Kylian Mbappe have really stood out for Monaco, likewise central midfielder Wylan Cyprien and striker Alassane Plea for Nice.
The 21-year-old Lemar has lit up Ligue 1 with his wide range of passing and excellent shooting — earning a France debut last month — while the lightning fast and skillful Mbappe is drawing early comparisons to France great Thierry Henry.
Mbappe was the star when France won the European under-19 Championship in July, and turned down the chance to join Real Madrid. The further good news for Monaco is that he has pledged his immediate future to the club, saying he wants to win trophies.
The 21-year-old Cyprien has great positional sense, awareness and power. Cyprien is the perfect provider for Plea, who is thriving alongside Mario Balotelli in attack and has 10 league goals.
Nice, where Swiss coach Lucien Favre's tactical awareness and astute signings have stood out in his first season in charge.
Striker Mario Balotelli's career has been relaunched by Favre, and the same can be said about attacking midfielder Younes Belhanda, who is displaying the trickery and audacious passing that made him one of the league's most exciting players five years ago.
Veteran Brazilian defender Dante has become a pillar in central defense with his outstanding reading of the game.
Nice's midfield blends speed, creativity and slick passing and is easy on the eye. Cyprien is gelling perfectly with the nimble Jean Michael Seri, whose energy and consistency is similar to Chelsea dynamo N'Golo Kante.
POINTS TO PROVE
Paris Saint-Germain coach Unai Emery has everything to prove — although he might not even get the chance if the club's owners lose patience.
Emery has already lost as many games (four) as PSG did in all competitions last season under Laurent Blanc, and Wednesday night's 5-0 win against a truly awful Lorient side does not paper over the evident cracks.
PSG has won only one of eight games when it has trailed this season and the defense, so tight last season, has been leaking goals with alarming ease: Seven conceded in three matches prior to the Lorient game.
Emery's pragmatic style is based on an incessant harrying and closing down of opponents, and in that respect he has not been helped by some of his creative players. With the exception of striker Edinson Cavani, who always works hard regardless of the opponent, forwards rarely track back.
Spaniard Jese has been a flop since joining from Real Madrid, but the major disappointment has been winger Angel Di Maria.
Given his experience and reputation, Di Maria has been particularly poor, scoring just three goals in 21 games. He clearly looks to be struggling now that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is no longer with the club, and the Argentine's drastic drop in form has not helped Emery.
PSG's stuttering title challenge resumes on Jan. 14 with a tough away trip to Rennes.