Monaco hunts Champions League spot, Clement still in charge

Hiring a relatively unknown coach with no experience of the French league didn’t immediately pay off for Monaco.

It’s paying off now.

The Principality club’s winning form under Philippe Clement has seen it climb to fourth in the standings as the race for a place in next season’s Champions League intensifies.

With four games left to play, six points separate Monaco from Marseille in the second automatic Champions League spot behind PSG, which has already sealed the title. Third-place Rennes is sandwiched between the southern clubs, level on points with Monaco but having a better goal difference.

“My players need to stay very focused for the four finals we have left to play,” Clement said.

Monaco’s next game is against Angers on Sunday, when Marseille hosts Lyon. Rennes takes on 18th-place Saint-Etienne on Saturday.

Many observers in France had their doubts when Monaco hired Clement, an attack-minded coach, on a three-year deal from Club Brugge in January as a replacement for Niko Kovac.

A former no-nonsense defender with 38 appearances for Belgium, the 48-year-old Clement honed his coaching skills at Club Brugge as an assistant before he got his first managerial job at Waasland-Beveren. He stayed there for only a few months and was recruited by Genk, where he claimed his first Belgian league title in 2019.

Clement returned to Club Brugge and claimed two more Belgian league titles to make it three in a row, while mentoring and developing new players such as Charles De Ketelaere and Noa Lang.

Although Brugge lacked the depth of squad usually required for Europe’s top competition, Clement was praised for his team’s displays against Real Madrid, PSG and Leipzig in their Champions League campaigns.

But Clement’s new challenge at Monaco was not immediately successful and the Riviera experience could have been cut short after just a few months in charge as he secured just three wins in his first nine games.

Monaco was ninth at the end of February, had lost in the French Cup semifinals and was knocked out of the Europa League in the last-16 stage.

“This is the first time the team has disappointed me,” Clement said after a 1-0 loss in Strasbourg on March 13 that proved to be a turning point.

That defeat, coupled with elimination from the Europa League, reportedly provoked the ire of Monaco president Dimitri Rybolovlev. On March 19, just before a game against PSG, L’Equipe newspaper reported that the Russian owner had decided to fire Clement. According to the sports daily, the news sparked intense discussions among players with Clement, still in his position, using it to spur his players on.

At the Stade Louis II stadium, Monaco thrashed PSG 3-0 as Wissam Ben Yedder scored a pair of goals to eclipse Kylian Mbappé and Neymar.

The result marked the start of a six-match winning run that is still going on.

Ben Yedder, a France international, has been at the heart of Monaco’s resurgence. His opening goal against Saint-Etienne last week was his 20th of the season, and his partnership with Kevin Volland up front is clicking again, with the pair involved in 55 goals in all competitions this season.

After struggling to adapt to Clement’s vision, Volland has scored three goals in his last five league matches, with 21-year-old Netherlands striker Myron Boadu also hitting form in the closing stages of the season.

Brazilian right back Vanderson and France international Aurélien Tchouameni, one of the most sought-after midfielders in Europe, have also contributed to put the club back on track.

“We are getting better and better at following the coach’s instructions, who is doing a great job,” said Tchouameni. “He continues to give us confidence, as he has done since the beginning, even when things were not going so well for us. So today we are reaping the fruits of our work, even if it is not finished.”

PSG, which sealed its record-equaling 10th title last weekend, travels to Strasbourg on Friday.

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