JOHN Obi Mikel might be inexorably rolling towards the Premier League crown with Chelsea, but in Monaco’s Elderson Echiejile, Nigeria have another international who finds himself firmly involved in a major title race.
One of the great narratives of the Ligue 1 season has been the emergence—or rather, the re-emergence—of Olympique de Marseille and Olympique Lyonnais.
Last season, the two giants of the French game finished way off the pace.
Marseille—the only French club to have won the Champions League—finished in lowly sixth place, 29 points from the top. Lyon, who won the championship seven times in a row between 2002 and 2008 fared little better, finishing one point ahead of OM, in fifth.
These two had discovered that they could no longer compete on equal terms with the division’s resident moneybags—Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco—and set about devising new approaches to scaling the top table.
Marseille turned to the legendary Marcelo Bielsa, who made Chile the darlings of the 2010 World Cup and who guided Athletic Club to the final of the Europa League. The Argentine coach, it was hoped, would use his tactical genius and his fabled methodology to help to compensate for OM’s fiscal deficiencies.
Lyon, by contrast, hoped that the fruit of their youth programme—the likes of Nabil Fekir, Alex Lacazette, Anthony Lopes and Corentin Tolisso—would help reduce the 28 points that separated them from PSG last term.
However, there was little guarantee of success, and in their pre-season guide, France Football forecast an eighth-place finish for Lyon.
Intriguingly, and this is what has made the current Ligue 1 season so fascinating, the three-way tussle between money, tactics and youth (and obviously they are incredibly simplistic designations) has resulted in a mere two-point gap between the leading trio.
With 30 matches played and eight games to go in the French top flight, reigning champions Paris sit in first place, one point clear of Lyon who are themselves only one ahead of OM.
The French media and Ligue 1 observers have been sizzling with talk of and excitement at this genuine three-horse race for the domestic crown.
However, while to have three teams competing for the title is better than many other leagues can manage, a fourth side have rather slipped under the radar.
As we approach the ‘business end’ of the campaign, Elderson’s AS Monaco find themselves firmly in the mix.
Ahead of this weekend’s fixtures, Monaco sit in fourth. They are four points behind Marseille and six points off PSG in first.
However, while this latter gap may seem considerable, Monaco do have a game in hand on their three title rivals. Win that outstanding feature, against Montpellier Herault Sport Club later this month, and things will be very tight.
Considering last season, when Monaco finished second in the standings, may lead one to the conclusion that this term has been a disappointment.
In reality, however, Monaco’s league form has been impressive considering the incredible transformation the club have undergone over the last 12 months.
As the club decided to cut the purse strings and as several Galacticos decided to seek pastures new, the very makeup of the starting XI was transformed.
Radamel Falcao moved to Manchester United on a season-long loan, while James Rodriguez departed for Real Madrid for £70.4 million after a fine World Cup with Colombia.
Key attackers Lucas Ocampos (season-long loan to Marseille) and Emmanuel Riviere (sold to Newcastle United for just under £6 million) have also gone, while experienced defenders Eric Abidal and Carl Medjani retired and was released respectively.
Finally, goalkeeper Sergio Romero came to the end of his loan deal and returned to Sampdoria.
Remarkably, despite such a transformation, and despite so many key departures, Monaco find themselves—almost—toe-to-toe with PSG.
They also find themselves in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, having seen-off Arsenal over two legs in the last 16.
Without wanting to force the narrative, Monaco have succeeded this season roughly through a combination of the ‘methods’ of their other three title rivals.
The tactics, while ‘negative’ in the eyes of some, have been effective, some of the high-profile stars—men like Jeremy Toulalan, Joao Moutinho and Dimitar Berbatov—have played their parts, while there is an abundance of youth; key men Layvin Kurzawa, Fabinho, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Bernardo Silva, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Wallace and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco are all 22 or under.
Elderson has played his part as well, although due to the superb efforts of France international Kurzawa, hasn’t played as much as he surely would have liked.
Still, the left-back—with eight starts—has found himself in the first XI twice as many times as Mikel has at Chelsea. He has made crucial contributions too—notably the opening goal in a 1-1 draw with Stade de Reims back in October.
The fallen Super Eagle also featured in the Champions League double-header against Arsenal, playing the whole of the first match, the 3-1 victory in North London.
There is a case to be made that he should leave the club this summer unless Kurzawa is sold. For a player in his prime and of his ability, it’s simply not enough to have made ten league appearances by the beginning of April.
However, before such decisions are made at the end of the year, Elderson will be looking to win his first major league title.
Nigeria fans shouldn’t simply be holding out for John Obi Mikel to be the only Super Eagle lifting a major domestic league this season—in Elderson, there is hope for a second.