Niko Kovac: "Marseille is one of the best teams in France"
After Lille, the teammates of Pietro Pellegri, who found the net against the northern side will follow that match with a second crucial trip, this time to Marseille. AS Monaco’s players will face OM this Saturday at the Stade Vélodrome (5 p.m. behind closed doors), as part of the 14th Matchday in Ligue 1. This summit in the south-east offers the chance for Niko Kovac’s men to revive their fortunes, after the defeat away to LOSC, which saw the end of series of four straight victories. The Monegasque coach was on hand to give us the latest at a pre-match press conference 48 hours from kick-off.
Hello Niko. In your opinion, is it an advantage to face a team playing in Europe for the second time in a row?
It’s the same situation as against Lille. I know it can be said that not having played in the week is an advantage for us over Marseille. But this team is one of the best in the league. They have only lost once in Ligue 1 this season, even if they lacked a cutting edge in the Champions League. I don’t think that’s really a big advantage. Marseille play every three days, that’s AS Monaco’s aim in the next few seasons. But now we have to work hard all week to be up and running when the weekends come. We don’t have the same rhythm in terms of our fixtures, that’s for sure, but we have to put that aside and play our football.
Were you too careful against Lille in the first half?
As I said after the match against Lille, there was a lot of respect between the two teams. The first half was indeed a bit standoffish, we approached each other with caution, but they were a very good opponent. They have shown in the last two seasons that they are a very good team in our league, which regularly plays in Europe. We try to always be dynamic, to create scoring chances, to be aggressive, but this time we have to admit that we had fewer chances than usual. Against Marseille, we will obviously try to create more chances, because if we do not create chances, we cannot score, that is mathematical.
Is your team having a little more trouble playing the way they would like to on the road?
At the moment there are no fans in the stadiums, so you could say it is the same playing at home or away. But it’s true that we played and we lost in Rennes, Lyon and Lille as well. I think we are a step below those sides at this point. Rennes and Lille have built beautiful foundations for success in recent years and are regularly taking part in European matches. We want to be permanent competitors to these teams. Conversely, we also won away to Nice, who are in the Europa League. Right now we’re right behind them, but we’re following our own process. I am very happy with the progress shown by my team. We obviously need to be more competitive on the road to get to their level, that’s for sure. Marseille is one of the best teams in France. Even if Dimitri Payet will not be there, there have some very good players, like Florian Thauvin. We showed against Paris Saint-Germain that when you play at 100%, we are also a very good team. I don’t know if Marseille will be a chance to make things click away from home, but we will do everything to win.
Do you think your team is capable of competing for the title in this season, where things are very close at the top of the table?
We can’t seriously talk about playing for the title when we’ve finished 17th and 9th the previous two seasons. It seems very tough to me. I would sign on for second place tomorrow if that were the case, but honestly we are working to improve collectively first. I see the progress we are making week after week, but there is still a way to go. Obviously you want to join in the fight at the top, but for now it’s a little early to tell. Marseille have two matches in hand and they could even overtake PSG if they win both games.
What is missing to perform better on the road?
At home we are much more the ones dictating the action, while on the road we are more in a mode of reaction. We need to change the way we do things playing away from home. It is played out at the mental level I think. But we have a young team, we have to keep repeating our efforts and performances to show that we can play at a high level — maybe that’s on the mental level that things play out. We will try to make progress in this area.
Was the defeat in Lille difficult to manage?
We were very disappointed with this loss, because they didn’t necessarily play better than us. They just made fewer mistakes. Right after the game I told my players that we had to move on, forget about the result, like after Rennes and Lyon. Now we have to show our true face. Physically we are very well prepared, technically and tactically we are ready. And I think we’ll show it in the next four games. For these four matches, we will need the whole squad to be up to their best level to get results. Some players who haven’t had a lot of playing time so far will have the opportunity to play, which hasn’t necessarily been the case until now.
Wissam Ben Yedder — does he need more time to be back to his best after dealing with COVID-19?
As I said before, inevitably when you have been affected by the disease, your level of performance is not the same. It effects your body, your energy. You cannot expect the player to be ready for a full match upon their return. Against Nîmes and then against Lille, we saw that we had to take time to bring Wissam back, working with the medical staff so that he could come back gradually. He’s a very important player, he scores goals and creates assists and we need him, but only at 100%.
What did you think of what happened during the match against Paris Saint-Germain?
It’s very easy for me to answer. You just have to ask yourself how you would have reacted if the situation had presented itself to you. Did the players react well on the pitch? Yes.
How do you see this return to form on the part of Pietro Pellegri, who scored at Lille ?
Pietro is a great talent. I didn’t know this statistic, but the last time he played 90 minutes was two years ago. He is still a very great talent and I believe we need to have patience and take time for him to come back to 100%. He’s a pure striker, he likes to score and I like that about him. He knows how to score in all positions, with his head, and with both feet. If he keeps going and stays healthy, I have to say, he’ll be a great striker. He has great technical and physical qualities. He is the future of AS Monaco. Sometimes you have to tell him not to work so hard — you have to tell him to channel his energy.
Are you surprised by his strength of character to recover after two challenging years?
I’m not surprised by his strength of character, or his state of mind, because he’s young and he knows what he wants. When I arrived, I had a discussion with him and told him that we would all work together to make him come back in the best possible way. The last two years he was injured and we have to figure out now how he can stay healthy for the long haul. He is working on it. On the pitch you have seen that, like me, he always wants to win, to score, he is a competitor. We have two forwards in the team who are doing well, but he’s there behind them and he will have playing time to show his qualities.
Coming back to Marseille, isn’t it too dangerous to play too much on the front foot against this team?
It’s a team with a lot of qualities. They defend very well, they also attack very well, and they play perfectly on the counterattack. They have top quality players like Benedetto, Thauvin or Cuisance, whom I know very well. I’m not going to tell you that I’m going to Marseille to play for a draw. We want to win this match. They did play on Wednesday, but hopefully we will finally be able to play as well away as at home.
Have you put extra pressure on the players?
No it’s not necessary. We cannot say that we are going to go to Marseille and win easily. They’re a historic club, and playing in the Champions League, so we have to go there to play at 100%. Otherwise there will be the same result as in Lille at the end of the match. We must take all our chances and reduce — as much as possible — the errors on the pitch so we can hope to come back with a result. No need to put any extra pressure on them for that, the players know what they have to do.