Fire Confidential's preview guru takes a look at the Montreal Impact.
Perfect weather, a shut-out streak, and a returning local favorite are all on tap for this one.
Qui Sont-ils? Impact Montreal
The first record of the Paunovic/Rodriguez era has been registered. After a 0-0 draw at Yankee stadium against NYCFC the Chicago Fire tied the record for the longest away winless streak in the league (27 matches). It must be said however that despite the result Chicago looks to have fully implemented Paunovic’s system and they look solid in defense. The Fire are riding a 356 minute shutout streak that can turn into a very much wanted club record on Saturday if they can stop the Montreal Impact from scoring for the first 40 minutes. Matt Lampson had a superb match against NYCFC with David Villa labeling him as the man of the match. Johan Kappelhoff has looked like an early leader in the locker room and Jonathan Campbell has had a standout start to his professional career.
It may not be as easy to keep Montreal scoreless. Didier Drogba is set to make his return for le Impact, Ignacio Piatti and Lucas Ontivero are in good form and Dominic Oduro has been known to find hot streaks against former teams. They may have only scored in three of their five matches but Montreal tallied eight goals in those matches so when they’re hot, they’re really hot.
Over the last few seasons there have been some fireworks and dramatic storylines surrounding this fixture and it only gets juicier this time around. Will Chicago continue their defensive form and find a bit of luck on the other side of the field, or will Montreal get a morale boost from the return of Drogba and manage to put two or three past Lampson?
Impact Montreal Form guide: W-W-L-L-W
Previous Match: A 2-0 home win over Columbus Crew SC
Formation: 4-2-3-1: Bush; Camara, Cabrera, Ciman, Toia; Bekker, Alexander; Ontivero, Piatti, Shipp; Oduro
Je vais prendre deux billets et un popcorn pour "Bonjour Monsieur Shipp”: For those of you that are regular readers you know we usually jump straight into the strengths and weaknesses of the Fire’s opponent. Today however, we’ll need to discuss the undertones of Saturday’s match. In the past this fixture has seen the return of club legend Frank Klopas on the opponent’s coaching bench, the goal scoring prowess of Didier Drogba manifest itself in a hat trick against a Chicago side that he “was” a part of for a few brief minutes, and a match which catapulted Montreal into a playoff position and doomed Chicago to yet another year without a post season appearance.
This time around Chicago will witness the return of their golden child, their former poster boy, the player that fans were told would be the centerpiece of the club in the future, Harrison Shipp. Despite saying in an interview with the Daily Herald that he doesn’t want this match to be about him or his revenge, you would have to assume that deep under the layers of political correctness and Shipp’s kind humility there still remains that sense of hurt that was evident in both the letter that he penned hours after the initial trade and in fan’s hearts when they saw him in the blue and black Montreal shirt for the first time. In front of a family that cancelled their long held season tickets, in front of supporters that will most likely still chant his name, and in front of Paunovic and Rodriguez, this will be an opportunity for Shipp to make a statement.
Points Forts: When Montreal announced that Didier Drogba would miss four out of their first five matches due to a reluctance to play on turf and instead spend two weeks training with USL club Sacramento Republic there was a sense of disappointment among the Impact fan base and organization. That sense has since dissipated and Montreal currently sits atop the Eastern Conference standings. They have found a way to play without not only Drogba but also without Andres Romero, Marco Donadel and Cameron Porter who featured heavily last season but currently find themselves on the injury list. Let’s take a look at how they’ve managed without them.
Contre-attaque: It seems that almost every MLS team favors playing on the counter but Montreal is arguably one of the most effective counter attacking teams in the league. Not only that, but they make it look magnifique. The offensive part of their line up will ideally feature Piatti, Shipp and Ontivero as the midfielders and Drogba or Oduro as the lone striker. What is interesting about this set up is that neither of the “3” in the midfield are out and out wingers. Each of them can be termed a CAM or a classic “#10”. The ability of Shipp, Piatti and Ontivero to shift and rotate within the triangle leaves defenders and holding midfielders often second-guessing themselves.
Ontivero and Shipp will initially line up on the wing but both prefer cutting inside when they are in possession on the counter. Montreal’s win against Seattle perfectly highlighted their approach in the offensive third. The bulk of their counters started with Kyle Bekker and Eric Alexander winning the ball back and quickly looking for Piatti who ran right up the middle of the pitch. A player of his caliber requires more than one defender to apply pressure on him and he creates situations where two or three defenders crash in centrally. If you don’t take this approach he is guaranteed to beat his man and punish you from distance.
The added defensive pressure opened up lanes and space for both Shipp and Ontivero who had multiple shots on frame from precisely dished off Piatti passes. A few key saves from Steve Clark and a rocket off the post saved further Crew blushes. On a few occasions Columbus dealt with Montreal’s counter by fouling but the Impact’s ability to put in good dead balls became very evident. Shouts of “don’t foul” could be heard from the Crew’s bench early in the second half and they were ultimately punished off of a corner and the ensuing Hassoun Camara header for Montreal’s first goal.
It must also be mentioned that if the midfield and center backs crash in to stop Montreal’s centrally focused counter, Oduro’s pace and a simple through ball can easily dismantle that approach. Late runs into the box from the holding midfielders are also troublesome for the opposition as they put most of their focus on the front four. Bekker’s late goal against the Crew is perfect evidence of this. Chicago has been good defensively but Montreal posses a whole new set of problems with or without Drogba. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the shutout streak end.
Défenseurs qui peuvent attaquer: If opposing defenses thought they had their hands full with Montreal’s front four they’ll be disappointed to hear that that’s not all they have to worry about. One of the most striking aspects of Montreal’s attack was their defense’s ability to build from the back. Laurent Ciman, Victor Cabrera and Camara are all comfortable with the ball at their feet and take a more nuanced approach to spreading the ball than just “hoofing it forward”. That’s not to say they avoid the long ball though. There were three occasions against Seattle where Ciman played a 40 or 50 yard ball right to the feet of Oduro or Ontivero, passes that Piatti himself would have been proud of. Ciman found himself in the attacking third on a few occasions and Camara notched the aforementioned set piece goal. Montreal is dangerous from all over the field.
Le Retour de Drogba: Chelsea jerseys will be plentiful in the stands on Saturday as the legend that is Drogba will most likely make an appearance. Here is your obligatory mention of the man that notched four goals in two matches against Chicago last season. Yes, he’s dangerous.
Faiblesses: Montreal looked good in their last match but before that they lost two consecutive road games. The away team has never won in this match up, which makes Montreal’s road form even more delightful for Fire supporters. There have been a few glaring issues responsible for those road losses that were also visible in the win against Columbus. Let’s examine them.
But I’m le Tired: After watching the last three matches closely we might have to re-name Montreal’s formation as a 2-4-3-1. Camara and Donny Toia simply don’t feel like defending most of the time. This isn’t a classic case of not tracking back after helping out in attack, it seems to be a complete lack of interest in marking opposing wingers even in situations of having all four “defenders” in front of the play.
If Columbus was wearing their shooting boots in Montreal then the Impact’s last match very well could have been a loss as well. Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay did whatever they wanted down the flanks. Time and time again Federico Higuain would feed it wide and they would just run into space without pressure. The balls played into the middle didn’t sit up well on the turf and a few unfortunate bobbles meant that Columbus couldn’t finish.
If Paunovic were to utilize his 3-5-2 we believe that Montreal would be vulnerable to Rodrigo Ramos and Michael Harrington’s forays forward. Chicago will rue not having the chance for David Accam to put speed and pressure on this back four but perhaps Kennedy Igboananike can step up yet again.
Form vs. Prestige: In an ironic way Drogba will be somewhat of a headache for Montreal as far as selection is concerned. They have been playing well with a system that doesn’t include him. Will Mauro Biello play him or will he come off of the bench? If he starts it could provide Chicago with an opportunity to exploit a lineup that hasn’t really played together all that much.
Possession: Montreal has not out possessed their opponents in a meaningful way yet during this campaign. Possession statistics are roughly 50/50 for them in their first five matches. This is a stat that could prove costly for the Impact in Chicago because the Fire have shown that when they can control possession they build confidence and become dangerous in the build up.
Finishing matches: Montreal looked decent in both of the away matches against Dallas and Seattle but conceded all of the goals within the last ten minutes of those matches. This match could come down to mental strength and perseverance, and area where Montreal has clearly struggled.
Prediction: The Fire’s defense continues to impress and the offense somehow manages to score. Chicago 2-1 Montreal. Igboananike and Goossens for Chicago and a Shipp goal to warm everyone’s hearts.