PSG braced for tough test at Lens, without Messi and Neymar

PARIS (AP) — French league leader Paris Saint-Germain faces its toughest test of the season Sunday when it travels to play a Lens side which has won all of its home games.

Victory for second-place Lens would move it four points behind defending champion PSG, which will be without the suspended Neymar and World Cup winner Lionel Messi, who is expected back in training early next week.

PSG coach Christophe Galtier’s side is unbeaten after 16 games but he’s bracing himself for an intense clash.

“This game against Lens has top billing because they’ve won all their home matches,” Galtier said Friday. “(Lens coach) Franck Haise has created a dynamic there and the atmosphere will be extraordinary.”

Messi and Neymar are level for most assists in the league with 10, while Neymar’s tally of 12 goals is second only to teammate Kylian Mbappé with 13.

Their combined absence significantly weakens PSG’s attack.

“It’s not a trivial matter,” Galtier said. “We know their importance.”

While Galtier knew he would be without Messi, who was given extra time off to celebrate his World Cup win back home in Argentina, Neymar’s suspension forced Galtier to rethink. Neymar was sent off in a 2-1 win against Strasbourg on Wednesday for collecting two yellow cards in rapid succession, the second for diving in the penalty area.

“Straight after Wednesday’s game we thought about how we would organize ourselves (against Lens),” Galtier said. “We worked yesterday and today on finding the best organization possible. I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do.”

Lens favors a high-octane pressing approach and is very dangerous on the counter-attack, so PSG will seek to avoid being dragged into a midfield battle where losing the ball could prove costly.

PSG’s best option without Messi and Neymar to link up play is probably to launch Mbappé from deep, so he can use his pace against the Lens defense.

Mbappé rescued PSG with a stoppage-time penalty against Strasbourg, where PSG’s weakness against attacks down the flanks was easily exposed when Strasbourg equalized.

Mbappé was playing only 10 days after scoring a hat trick in the World Cup final, and Galtier hailed his motivation to play so soon for PSG after losing with France.

“(It) shows his mindset and mentality. He’s growing as a player every day,” Galtier said. “He’s played 56 games and scored 56 goals in 2022. How lucky we are to have a player like that.”

SPOTLIGHT ON BEN SEGHIR

Monaco coach Philippe Clement has vowed to protect teenage midfielder Eliesse Ben Seghir from the spotlight after he made a sensational league debut.

The 17-year-old midfielder came off the bench to score twice — including an Mbappé-style curling winner — to help Monaco win 3-2 at Auxerre in midweek.

Ben Seghir has been the talk of French soccer since and all eyes will on him if he plays at home against Brest on Sunday.

“I can say that he won’t be giving any interviews in the coming weeks. We’ll wait for him to gain some experience before that, because I want him to concentrate on football,” Clement said Friday. “We know agents are coming, new friends are coming, and new girlfriends, too. I’ve spoken to him about it. Eliesse is a winner, he knows there are pitfalls on the way to becoming a great player. That’s also my role as a coach, but also a little bit as a second father to the young players.”

Although Ben Seghir caught the eye with the casual brilliance of his skill and his lethal finishing, Clement was not surprised.

“I’m not saying I had a crystal ball telling me he’d score twice, but I knew that he could help the team with his ability,” Clement said. “We’d spoken about it together for weeks.”

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