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Coach Kovac's "finishers" pushing Monaco's title challenge

·3 min read

PARIS — Monaco coach Niko Kovac refers to players on the bench as “finishers” who can settle close games rather than substitutes, and they are serving him well in an increasingly tense title race.

The fact Monaco is is contention for a league and cup double is down to the way Kovac has rotated his players regardless of status, including star striker Wissam Ben Yedder.

Although Monaco is in third place, Kovac's side is playing better soccer than leader Lille, Paris Saint-Germain or Lyon, the other close title rivals. Monaco has beaten Paris Saint-Germain twice and lost only once in 22 games overall ahead of Sunday's trip to Angers.

Lille, which visits Lyon on Sunday night, leads PSG by one point, Monaco by two and Lyon by three. PSG kicks matters off on Saturday with an awkward trip to midtable Metz.

With only four games left after this weekend, the race is too close to call. But Monaco has strong momentum with its leading players in excellent form despite not always playing.

Ben Yedder was the league's co-top scorer with PSG's Kylian Mbappe last season, but that hasn't stopped Kovac leaving him out. Rather than sulk, as other established star players might, Ben Yedder has responded to the challenge with a flurry of goals in recent games.

Attacking midfielder Aleksandr Golovin has emerged from a hugely frustrating start to the season to become the league's most dangerous passer.

Kovac has managed Golovin brilliantly, gradually bringing the best back out of the player who lit up Russia's World Cup campaign in 2018 with his quick feet, skill and vision.

Since returning from a hamstring injury which kept him out for over three months, he has been used in an impact role.

Golovin has netted a useful four goals but his eight assists in just 819 minutes of play is easily the best ratio in the league. By comparison, PSG winger Angel Di Maria’s eight assists have come from 1,607 minutes on the field, according to league statistics.

“He can play on both sides or as a No. 10 (playmaker)” Kovac said of Golovin, who also takes corners and free kicks.

No wonder Ben Yedder and the burly Kevin Volland, who joined this season from Germany's Bundesliga, are scoring regularly.

Ben Yedder has 17 league goals and Volland, who has excellent movement for a centre forward, has 15. That puts them just behind Lyon’s Memphis Depay (18) and the ever-prolific Mbappe (23). Furthermore they have provided nine assists between them, underlining the unselfish bond binding Kovac’s side.

“They are pushing the other players to surpass themselves, they bring something extra," Kovac said.

Perhaps his most unselfish player, in terms of how often he plays when compared to his high ability, is forward Stevan Jovetic.

He was considered among the brightest talents in Italy's Serie A from 2011-13 when he netted 27 goals in 58 games for Fiorentina. But his form dipped following a high-profile Premier League move to Manchester City, where the pressure of expectation sometimes weighed on him.

Jovetic's velvet touch, astute passing and cool finishing make him an exceptionally good player for Kovac to bring on late in games, and he has chipped in with six goals.

“His situation isn't easy. Kevin and Wissam score a lot, but he never gives up,” Kovac said. “He knows I count on him because he can change the course of a game.”

The way Monaco's “finishers” share between them has made Kovac's side a force in the second half of the season.

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press