Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco meet at the Stade Louis II in Ligue 1 on Sunday for what could prove to be this season's defining encounter, as far as the title is concerned. The French champions go into the game five points clear of their newly-promoted title rivals and have the chance to pull clear as the final third of the campaign approaches.
The clash between PSG and their new rivals is the most moneyed encounter in European league football at present. But despite being impudently dubbed "Le Cashique" by some and "El Cashico" by others, this weekend's clash in the principality has genuine title-deciding credentials.
- Prince Albert backs Monaco vs. PSG
Back in September of last year, the two sides met for the first time since Monaco's re-emergence from the depths of Ligue 2 as one of Europe's most wealthy sides and as PSG's newest major domestic rival. It finished 1-1. It was a top two meeting back then and it will be a top two meeting on Sunday too, with third-placed AS Saint-Etienne eight points behind ASM.
A win for PSG would surely put enough distance between the two to decide this season's title, but a win for Les Monegasques would re-open a title race that many have felt for some time was a foregone conclusion. With UEFA Champions League duty about to kick in for Laurent Blanc's side once again, seeing their lead at the summit reduced to just two points would put them under major pressure for the remainder of the campaign.
The principality is traditionally not a happy hunting ground for PSG and they usually fare poorly in these fixtures. In 39 league meetings, since their first back in 1971, the capital club have won just four times on Monegasque territory. The most recent of those came in September of 2007, when Paul Le Guen's side secured a 2-1 win that completed remarkable back-to-back wins considering the capital club's unfavourable history in this fixture.
Sunday's clash will be lacking some of the same intrigue that surrounded the first meeting of the season though.
Radamel Falcao misses out through injury for Monaco and Edinson Cavani is sidelined for PSG, making an expensively assembled clash a little poorer. The principality outfit do have their own Count of Monte Carlo, new signing Dimitar Berbatov, available to potentially make his debut following his deadline day arrival from Premier League side Fulham.
James Rodriguez is also in excellent form for the hosts and PSG's Zlatan Ibrahimovic has looked unstoppable in recent weeks. The Swede, who has struggled this week with a back injury but is still named in the squad, netted a brilliant double away at FC Nantes on Tuesday to secure a place in the Coupe de la Ligue final.
Ibrahimovic's ability to single-handedly decide some of the most important matches for the French champions could ultimately make the difference on Sunday in a clash that midfielder Blaise Matuidi has likened to "a Champions League game". PSG coach Blanc predicts a tough test and a "footballing spectacle", while Monaco tactician Claudio Ranieri has claimed that the Frenchman's troops have "already won the title" as part of his pre-match mind games.
Blanc will have been boosted by the news that teenage midfielder Adrien Rabiot is available for selection once again after a recent knee injury. Yohan Cabaye is also included and is in the running for his first full start for PSG after being used as a substitute against Girondins de Bordeaux and Nantes. However, Zoumana Camara's continued absence will be a worry for Le President with only three fit central defenders available to him as a return to Champions League action and deep squad rotation approaches.
Lucas Moura will be hoping to continue the recent good form that has seen him edge ahead of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore and Jeremy Menez for the last of the three starting spots up top. But while Cavani continues to miss out, the Brazilian will occupy the right side, while Lavezzi operates on the opposite flank. The most important battle of the game will arguably come in the midfield though and the trio of Matuidi, Thiago Motta and the rapidly maturing Marco Verratti will almost certainly remain intact, with Yohan Cabaye likely to start on the bench as Blanc looks to seize early control of proceedings.
The past two matches have been of major significance for the side from the capital, with the 2-0 win over Bordeaux strengthening their lead at the top of Ligue 1 and the win in Nantes securing an appearance at Stade de France this term. However, that progress in the league could be undone by defeat in the principality, as it would allow PSG's direct title rivals right back into the reckoning when there is a perfect chance to slam the door shut.
Beat Monaco at the Stade Louis II on Sunday, Blanc can heavily rotate his team for next week's home game against Valenciennes ahead of the trip to face Bayer Leverkusen away the following Tuesday. A draw also affords PSG a relative level of comfort, but defeat could prove massively detrimental to the defending champions' domestic and European hopes.
With the stakes high in Monte Carlo on Sunday, who will take a gamble and strike a potentially decisive blow in this season's title race?