Fifteen years on from the stunning Roberto Carlos free-kick that veered its way around the wall and into the net, to the astonishment of then France No1 Fabien Barthez, another South American left-back has been wowing French football fans with his set-piece expertise.
This time the setting was the quarter-final of this season’s Coupe de la Ligue and Nice were 3-2 down against Dijon in the 119th minute and heading out of the competition. That was until Fabian Monzon’s dramatic intervention, however, with the Argentinian firing home an unstoppable free-kick to take the tie to penalties, with Les Aiglons winning the shoot-out 5-3 to seal a semi-final berth.
The last-gasp equaliser is just one of the reasons the gifted defender is so popular with the Niçois faithful, another being the fact that Monzon is currently the club’s leading league scorer having netted five times – all from the penalty spot. “It’s a nice feeling,” said the player, who arrived from Boca Juniors last summer, when speaking to FIFA.com. “But on the other hand, it’d make more sense and be more reassuring if it was one of our attackers instead.”
Intriguingly, despite his success rate in Ligue 1, Monzon did not touch down at Nice as a specialist set-piece taker. “When I was at Boca Juniors, with the likes of Juan Riquelme or Martin Palermo around, nobody else was allowed near the ball whenever there was a free-kick or penalty!” said the 24-year-old with a smile.
“That’s normal given the career they’ve had, their experience and their ability,” he continued. “Once here at Nice, I took a few set-pieces in training and my team-mates decided to put their faith in me to take them in matches too. And Lady Luck’s smiled on me so far as I’ve scored more than I’ve missed!”
A pleasant surprise
Clearly thriving in his role as a goal-scoring full-back, Monzon’s time in France has been marked my contrasts: such as being one of the form defenders in Ligue 1 in one of the division’s lowest-ranked sides. “To be frank, I thought that we’d be in a bit better situation,” he said, on Nice currently being in 18th spot with ten rounds to go.
“In our defence, we didn’t have much luck early in the season and that often sets the course for the rest of the campaign. But I didn’t come to France to play in the second division and we’re going to fight really hard to stay up.”
Though the situation is not yet beyond repair, Monzon and Co. are undoubtedly deep in the relegation mire. All of which makes his call-up for Argentina’s two most recent qualifying matches for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ something of a shock, even for the player himself.
“To be honest, that was a surprise because I’d not been in the national squad for a long time,” said Monzon, when quizzed about his selection by Albiceleste boss Alejandro Sabella for November 2011’s qualifiers against Bolivia and Colombia, as well as February 2012’s friendly versus Switzerland. “National coaches generally only call up players who are starring at major clubs. So I was very surprised, and even more pleased, to be selected.”
Fortunately for Monzon, specialist left-backs have been in short supply in recent years for Argentina, with successive Albiceleste supremos often preferring to line up with a converted central defender – such as Gabriel Heinze – in the role. And though he did not taste action during the three aforementioned call-ups, Nice’s No18 is hopeful he can bring an end to that ‘square pegs in round holes’ solution.
“I still need to work on being more disciplined defensively, before I think about how I can help going forward,” said the Rosario-born wing-back, who triumphed alongside the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria at the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008. “A solid backline is a priority for every national team. The players we have in defensive positions, even those who aren’t full-backs by trade, are all very good at defending in one-on-one situations.”
Brazil 2014 on the horizon
“To be successful in charge of a national team, coaches are forced to look for the best solution for the side. In Switzerland, for example, I was on the bench but the gaffer felt that [Manchester City right-back] Pablo Zabaleta was a better option,” said the former Xeneizes’ man, who is reportedly the subject of interest from such European heavyweights as Arsenal, Juventus and AC Milan. “And you can’t say that he [Sabella] got it wrong, because we played very well, won 3-1 and Zabaleta had a very good match.”
With the next FIFA World Cup little more than two years away, time is running out for Monzon and his fellow candidates for Argentina’s left-back berth at the 2014 finals on Brazilian soil. “Brazil have always had and always will have great full-backs, if for no other reason than the sheer depth of talent they have in every position,” said Monzon on the country which produced Cafu and Roberto Carlos, as well as more recent flyers such as Maicon, Dani Alves, Andre Santos and Michel Bastos.
“But there are good full-backs in Argentina too, such as Racing Club’s Ivan Pillud, among many others, though they’re still young and short on experience,” the adventurous defender expressed.
“While no one full-back is able to stake a strong claim and there are centre-backs performing well in that position, it’ll be tough to win a starting place. But I think that the coach will watch everyone in action before deciding who he can give a chance too. I’m proof of that.”