Paris (AFP) – Free-scoring Monaco led by Radamel Falcao and Mario Balotelli’s slick Nice side clash at the top of French Ligue 1 this weekend.
Early pacesetters Nice have faltered of late allowing Monaco to move top of the table on goal difference on 49 points, with champions Paris Saint-Germain lurking in third on 46 ahead of their trip to Dijon later Saturday.
In the reverse fixture Monaco were thrashed 4-0 at Nice in September as a rejuvenated and refocused Balotelli scored twice and the visitors cracked with Lucien Favre’s young side running rampant.
But Monaco have morphed into a goal-scoring phenomenon this season with 65 goals from 22 league games, and when they went through to the French Cup last 16 on Wednesday opposition coach Bruno Luzi of third-division Chambly made a joke that rang true.
“Monaco banged five past us, like they do to everyone else,” Luzi said, after his plucky side went down 5-4 in extra time.
Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco are still fighting on four fronts at home and abroad and will bring back eight first-choice players that were either rested, suspended or on Africa Cup of Nations duty midweek.
“We deserve to be where we are (top of the league),” the Portuguese said after last week’s 1-1 draw at PSG.
“And nobody could say we are lucky to be in the Champions League last 16.”
“The title race is going to go all the way to the wire,” he added.
After four straight league draws Nice won 3-1 last weekend with strikers Balotelli and Alassane Plea both scoring.
Under the Swiss Favre, Nice have the tightest defence in Ligue 1 with just 15 goals conceded and a confident 22-year-old goalkeeper Yoan Cardinale on solid form.
“Monaco is going to be a massive match and we’ll need all our focus. We’ll need to be organised and score at the key moments,” Favre said.
PSG play later Saturday at Dijon, who are two points clear of the relegation zone.
Dijon will be wary of PSG new boy Julian Draxler, who scored twice in a 4-0 away rout of Rennes in the cup this week, and top Ligue 1 marksman Edinson Cavani.
– Payet in contention –
French internationals Dimitri Payet and Patrice Evra joined the struggle to relaunch Marseille during the winter break and they travel to Metz on Friday.
Midfield schemer Payet is likely to play some part but the veteran defender Evra is out injured.
“We’ll have to adapt from the red-hot atmosphere of the Velodrome and get used to a cold winter night at Metz,” Marseille coach Rudi Garcia warned of the trip to the side second bottom.
With the new signings morale will be high at Marseille, where the club shop sold over 1,000 shirts with Payet’s name on the evening of his arrival from West Ham.
“We needed iconic players and these two arrivals are our signal of intent,” club president Jacques Henri Eyraud said on Wednesday.
Marseille are sixth going into the weekend.
The last of the weekend’s big clashes is the bitter derby between fifth-placed Saint-Etienne and Lyon, four points ahead in fourth.
Lyon lost their last two games against Saint-Etienne but the visitors kept hold of star striker Alexandre Lacazette in the transfer window to boost their hopes of a European place.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Metz v Marseille (1945)
Monaco v Nice (1600), Bordeaux v Rennes, Dijon v PSG, Guingamp v Caen, Lille v Lorient and Montpellier v Bastia (2000)
Toulouse v Angers (1400), Nantes v Nancy (1600), Saint Etienne v Lyon (2000)
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