Resist the temptation to scoff on hearing that Sundayâs showdown between Monaco and Lyon is being described as a âsix-pointerâ for automatic Champions League qualification, but the duel of the Ligue 1 clubs is about even more than that. What promises to be a thrilling clash on the night is also, ultimately, about topping Franceâs alternative league, the one that Italyâs brightest young star, Pietro Pellegri, alluded to this week when explaining why he chose to join Monaco above his many other suitors.
Pellegri said the two main factors in his decision were Monacoâs âmagnificent campaignâ in last seasonâs Champions League and the clubâs glowing record of hothousing young talent on the highest stage. Those factors are, of course, linked. To enable youngsters to shine at the top, a team must take part in Europeâs elite competition. And if the youngsters blossom there, the club can continue to attract the cream of the continentâs youth, accepting they may eventually have to be sold, at a big profit. That is a precious cycle for clubs who cannot expect to compete regularly on the same terms as Qatarâs representative in France, Paris Saint-Germain.
Which is why Monaco, sensational champions last season but 12 points behind PSG befor this weekend, agreed to pay Genoa more than Â£21m for Pellegri, a once-unthinkable sum for a 16-year-old. It will be interesting to see whether Pellegri makes his debut against Lyon, who stand a point above Monaco, threatening to beat them not only to a second-place finish â and thus automatic entry to next seasonâs Champions League â but also in the argument over which club is the countryâs best incubator of young talent. It is a never-ending argument but worth taking a lead in. Marseille could pip both to second place but lag behind each of them in the youth development stakes.
Lyon finished 28 points behind Monaco last season. The gap has vanished not simply because of the departures from Monaco in the summer â Kylian MbappÃ©, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, et al â but also thanks to the brilliant recent form of young Lyon players. Two who are likely to influence Sundayâs result are Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Aouar.
Ndombele was 20 when Lyon signed him from Amiens in August but he has progressed at such a rate that there are calls for him to be in Franceâs World Cup squad â and perhaps even for him to start instead of Paul Pogba. The chances of Didier Deschamps making such a call seem remote but one can understand why it has been mooted. Ndombele, powerful and precise, has shown a quality, consistency and wiliness that belie his years. Any player who can school Marco Verratti, as he did during Lyonâs victory over PSG last month, is a gem. Ndombele has gleamed all season.
So has Aouar, who, at 19, is even younger and has spent much of the campaign out wide despite preferring central midfield. At Lyon since the age of 11, Aouar has paraded the qualities that make him versatile â intelligence and exquisite technique â on such a regular basis that Memphis Depay, a Â£16m recruit from Manchester United, has in effect been downgraded from marquee signing to supersub.
And then there is Nabil Fekir. At 24 he belongs in a class above âhot prospectâ but it is only this season that he is truly blazing back from a knee injury suffered in 2015. That is in spite of the fact that Ligue 1 defenders have shown him no mercy: he has been the most fouled player in the league this season, targeted even more often than Neymar. When Angers assigned the not-so-saintly Baptiste Santamaria to man-mark him in January, Fekir was fouled more times in a single match than any other player in the past 10 years in Ligue 1. But he scored his teamâs goal in the 1-1 draw.
Fekir, a marvellous dribbler and creator behind Lyonâs main striker, Mariano DÃaz, is also an expert finisher. He has struck 16 goals in 20 league matches this season, including one from his own half against Bordeaux. He has swaggered to the fore in the biggest games, scoring masterful freeâkicks against Marseille and PSG and also in the fifth minute of stoppage time when Lyon beat Monaco 3-2 at home in October.
Lyon won by the same scoreline when the sides met at the Stade Louis II in the cup two weeks ago. That hints at another intriguing angle to Sundayâs match: Lyon have been the best travellers in Ligue 1 this season, and Monaco the most fearsome hosts after PSG. Something has to give.
Monaco v Lyon, Sunday 8pm, BT Sport 1