Claudio Ranieri, the Monaco coach, was adamant in saying that Paris Saint-Germain don't have an advantage over Monaco. "I'm not saying they have an advantage," he said, adamantly. After pointing out that "PSG are more of a team than us. They've been together for two years. For us it's all brand new."
Ranieri might not quite be the Italian Ian Holloway (if only because you can kind of imagine there's an exact parallel out there somewhere) but it's classic managerial stuff, tempering expectations and giddiness ahead of a surprisingly strong start to Ligue Un, where Monaco are sitting at the top. Rather than being bullish, Ranieri instead appears confused himself, slightly embarrassed, and very afraid.
In their last fixture, Monaco failed to impress in getting past Lorient by a single penalty, leading to a few snorts of derision in the French press. Falcao, the goalscorer, was probably the worst player on the pitch, and little of the flair or imagination that ought to have been provided by the purchases this summer was on display.
Yet in winning while playing in such a pedestrian way, Monaco have achieved something that eluded similar projects in the past for a long time. Perhaps Ranieri learned from his struggles at Chelsea, who played beneath themselves for a long time until José Mourinho was appointed. Perhaps they've chosen to avoid the incremental buying approach of Manchester City, who floundered around with Roque Santa Cruz and Shaun Wright-Phillips and simply decided to prove that money really can speak loudly enough to attract world-class talent. Their rivals, PSG, however, are the strangest of the lot.
After ludicrously allowing Montpellier to win the league, their title win last year came with a monotonous pace that was maintained throughout the season reasonably safe in the knowledge that nobody else had the resources to look dangerous for more than a limited period. There were still hardly any truly great performances, or victories in desperate hours, but they weren't needed. A drab slog through France eventually saw them through, with a handful of impressive Champions League performances being considered a far better barometer of the team's ability, despite the small sample size.
PSG may have impressed in Europe, but the real mental limits of a team are better displayed in domestic tournaments. It requires, as Brian Clough stated, "every single aspect" that a football team could possibly have need of. This is, in a sense, the first time these two teams have met, and it may be the first we see of PSG dealing with real pressure from a fellow contender, threatened with losing the league by being shown up by something other than their own complacency.
If Monaco clinch victory, a real title race will begin, but regardless of the result it's hard not to think that a new rivalry will be born. A win for the champions would be a reality check for Ranieri & co, and could cast the shadow of an inferiority complex over the rest of Monaco's season. Even a draw will be a fine result for the upstarts, and keep things brewing along nicely for a real competition.
There might seem to be little romance in a game between two former also-rans artificially charged with ill-gotten wealth, but there's always romance in a title race in France, where teams can still have identities precisely because actual regional identities actually exist. There's no grand urban sprawl hosting stadiums named after insurance companies, and the variety comes not because some teams are managed by Tony Pulis and like to debase themselves, but by the character of the places themselves. This is why people get misty-eyed about people riding bikes in 2013. EA Guingamp have Duck Parmentier, Bordeaux have wine. What do West Brom and Sunderland have?
The Occitain lunacy up the coast at Marseille will probably ensure that PSG-OM retains the ceremonial title of the Official Big Game of The French Republic, as Manchester United-Liverpool and Juventus-Inter did elsewhere in the face of reality, but that fixture doesn't have Falcao vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. This does, and for that reason it's as important as any other in the world right now.