PARIS — Although Monaco coach Niko Kovac keeps saying his team is not a title contender, the statistics suggest otherwise.
Monaco has won six straight games, scoring 18 goals along the way, and collected 22 points from a possible 24 to rise up to fourth place. Defending champion Paris Saint-Germain is only three points ahead in third spot.
That could change this weekend with Monaco visiting last-place Nimes and PSG facing a tougher match at bitter rival Marseille. Both games are on Sunday.
Monaco's tally of 46 goals is bettered only by second-place Lyon (47) and PSG (53). The only snag for Monaco is that its total of 32 goals conceded is the highest of the top six teams.
“I want my team to be dynamic and attractive,” Kovac said. “We’re conceding too many goals, which I don’t like. But it’s a process of evolution.”
The partnership between France forward Wissam Ben Yedder and German striker Kevin Volland is certainly evolving positively.
Volland joined last September from modest German Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, where he was a consistent but unheralded player.
He has been a revelation in recent weeks, with six goals and several assists during Monaco's unbeaten run of eight games. His overall tally of 11 league goals is matched by Ben Yedder — who was the league's joint top scorer last season with PSG star Kylian Mbappe on 18.
Hardly good news for a Nimes defence which has leaked 47 goals — the most in the top division.
That Ben Yedder and Volland are clicking so well is perhaps surprising, given that it's their first season together. But it is testimony to the quick work done by Kovac, a former Croatia international who coached Bayern to a league and cup double in 2019 before getting fired later that year.
When he joined Monaco last summer, the club was in a fragile state after enduring two difficult seasons that saw coaches come and go amid relegation fears.
“The two previous seasons did not bother me. The situation was much worse when I started out at (Eintracht) Frankfurt (in 2016),” said the 49-year-old Kovac, who previously coached his national team for two years. “Without being arrogant, I believe in my abilities."
Monaco won the league title and reached the Champions League semifinals in 2017, scoring more than 150 goals overall that season.
But a team of superb young talent — including Mbappe and attacking midfielder Bernardo Silva — was dismantled as players were sold for huge profits.
Mbappe cost PSG 180 million euros ($215 million), while Premier League team Manchester City flexed its might to pay 107.5 million euros ($129 million) for Silva and left back Benjamin Mendy.
Kovac knows such a trading model comes with the territory at Monaco, and at French clubs in general.
Aside from PSG, which has been bankrolled by Qatari investment for a decade, teams are unable to hold on to the talents their esteemed academies produce simply because richer leagues offer them much higher wages.
But it's also because France is primarily a selling league that there are more opportunities for young players like 19-year-old centre half Benoit Badiashile — already in his third season with Monaco.
Skilful midfielder Sofiane Diop is only 20, but also in his third season as a professional.
In Wednesday's 2-1 home win against Nice, the fleet-footed Diop was joined in midfield by Youssouf Fofana (22), Aurelien Tchouameni (21) and Krepin Diatta (21).
“I just hope we can keep hold of our talents for a little bit longer. Our ambition is to make Monaco a great side again,” Kovac said. “We could have sold Benoit Badiashile (but) I said ‘It makes no sense. At 19 years old, he can grow here, get better, maybe get into the France team.’"
Kovac knows they will doubtless join financially stronger leagues before too long.
“Monaco will continue selling,” he said.
Before Monaco's latest stars of tomorrow do go, Kovac wants them to absorb his method of being mentally prepared for every situation that happens on the field.
“Players start picking up automatic reflexes to respond to recurring situations," he said. “Changing the way they think takes time. But this method will serve them well, even when they go abroad.”
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Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press