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Montreal Head to Atlanta With Cautious Optimism

Nancy’s men looking for a first-ever point at Mercedes Benz Stadium

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Montreal Impact
Guzan beaten. Bojan Krkic’s 81st minute equalizer earned Montreal a point the last time the teams met in September 2019.
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

It’s like going back to visit an old ‘friend’, one that hasn’t been very benevolent since your first-ever meeting when they were nice enough...

The MLS teams from Montreal and Atlanta haven’t met for 19 months when Bojan plundered a goal, and a point, for Montreal in the 81st minute at Stade Saputo in September 2019.

And until Inter-Miami came along last season, Atlanta was the only MLS-expansion side Montreal had claimed the spoils of war against during an inaugural meeting. The Impact as they were then, had very late spurts of action to thank for that success back in April 2017, with stoppage time goals at the end of each half. Former Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones had scored first for Atlanta, who played the entire second-half a man down.

Those games came at opposite ends of an all-time sequence in which the Impact gathered 4 points from a possible 18, so it’s hard for a Montreal fan to be optimistic going into battle with one of the league’s best-resourced clubs. One which won MLS Cup at only the second time of asking...

That was under the tutelage of Tata Martino, who really had Atlanta purring like a well-oiled machine. But things have not been so smooth since Arthur Blank held up the 2018 MLS Cup in the Mercedes Benz Stadium and Martino departed to take charge of the Mexican national team.

Frank De Boer came and went, succeeded temporarily by Stephen Glass, and now Gabriel Heinze the former Manchester United and Real Madrid left-back is the man in charge.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at New England Revolution
Passionate and animated, Gabriel Heinze receives a yellow card from Chris Penso during the recent 1-2 defeat to New England Revolution.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Heinze, with previous coaching experience entirely in Argentina, has made a slow start exiting Champions League to Philadelphia Union, and so far the only MLS opponent his team has managed to overcome is struggling Chicago Fire.

Atlanta’s early season form is far from stellar but belies a team capable of much better. They pulverized Philadelphia who had Andre Blake to thank, in the first-half of their Champions League quarter-final first-leg. Atlanta’s football was fast and frenzied, yet lacked pattern but they did force several chances.

When Przybylko scored early in the second half, the Union picked off Atlanta easily, spanking them 3-0, the heaviest home defeat ever suffered by The Five Stripes.

Perhaps then there is reason for Montreal optimism heading to Mercedes Benz Stadium, where they’ve failed to garner so much as a point in three previous visits. Only goals by Saphir Taider and Zakaria Diallo sit in the positive column with eight conceded.

It will take more games than the opening five of this season to convince Montreal fans of the club’s latest renaissance, which admittedly looks more encouraging than previous false dawns, so any optimism carried into this one should have a healthy dollop of caution attached.

It’s hard not to admire what Wilfried Nancy has cultivated so far and Wednesday night’s evidence suggested further enhancement of the gelling process, but Atlanta will see Saturday evening as a great opportunity to get back on track in front of 40,000 of their own fans.

They’ve also had a six-day rest from last Sunday, when the same Inter-Miami defeated by Montreal, troubled them in a 1-1 draw. Montreal of course had that late Wednesday game and are travelling, so Atlanta will expect to have more leg-power in the latter stages at Mercedes Benz. Wilfried Nancy’s strategy around substitutions will be key.

Montreal must aim first to quell home fan euphoria garnered by a first Atlanta game with capacity crowd since prior to pandemic lock-down. Should they reach the interval on parity or better, then who knows? They might just break their Mercedes Benz points duck.

CF Montreal v Inter Miami CF
Kamal Miler and James Pantemis celebrate their first mutual shut-out together after the late night 2-0 success over Inter-Miami.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Wilfried Nancy spoke about the goalkeeper situation during his press conference today, stating it was understood to both men that Pantemis would come in midweek with Clement Diop restored to the side for Atlanta on Saturday.

In defence, although Clement Bayiha has performed well, this weekend could see the return of Zach Brault-Guillard. The rest of the backline is expected to be the same, including Lassi Lappalainen in a hitherto unfamiliar wing-back role.

Although the front pairing picks itself, there are more ponderables for Nancy in midfield where, if he maintains 3-5-2 as expected, there are more viable candidates than spaces. It’s hard to see Samuel Piette being omitted after his Miami display, so that could see Wanyama return only to the bench. Mihailovic appears to be fit and well, so will occupy his normal spot between midfield and front two. I expect Ahmed Hamdy to lay claim to the remaining position in midfield.

This also displays an obvious enhancement from seasons past. Look at the bench and there are players like Wanyama and Sejdic, perhaps even Torres waiting to emerge. Up front despite not yet convincing, there’s Hurtado. Ibrahim looks ungainly but showed refreshing quality in Miami, his only outing to date.

That’s not even to mention Luis Binks or Mason Toye, who remain on the casualty list, or Bassong and Kizza, two promising youngsters now getting valuable minutes.

It almost feels as though I’m not writing about Montreal.

Nancy and his merry band of men should be delighted to emerge unbeaten from Atlanta, Saturday. All things considered it’s still one of the tougher games on the regular season calendar.

A win would be tumultuous...

Projected Starting Line-ups -
ATL - Guzan - Lennon, Robinson, Walkes, Bello - Hyndman, Sosa, Moreno - Mulraney, Martinez, Lopez

CFM - Diop - Brault-Guillard, Struna, Camacho, Miller, Lappalainen - Piette, Hamdy, Mihailovic - Quioto, Johnsen

Match Officials -
Referee: Silviu Petrescu
Asst Refs: Jeffrey Greeson, Claudiu Badea
4th Official: Elvis Osmanovic
VAR: Chris Penso
Asst VAR: Jozef Batko

THE REF - Silviu Petrescu - MLS games 168.
Fouls called/Game - 27.6
Yellows/Game - 4.0
Reds (career) - 25
PK’s awarded - 40

Mr Petrescu has refereed Montreal 13 times in MLS. Montreal has won 6, drawn 4 and lost 3, scoring 26 and conceding 20. Tomorrow will be the fourth Montreal away game he has officiated. Montreal is unbeaten in the previous three (W1, D2).

He has sent only one player off (either side) in his 13 MLS games officiating Montreal, Evan Bush, for denial of a goalscoring opportunity in a 1-4 Stade Saputo defeat at the hands of Orlando City.

ATLUTD 4 wins, 12 goals … CFM 1 win, 6 goals … Ties 1

ATLUTD 3 wins, 8 goals … CFM 0 wins, 2 goals … Ties 0

Where the smart money is...

The bookies were happy enough with Montreal’s midweek victory in which they were a healthy 4/1 shot and won’t mind a repeat on Saturday

The smart money again opposes Montreal, nor does it support the Quebecers’ chances of a first-ever point at Atlanta either.

The home side is available at 8/11 (1.73) with Montreal identically priced as they were at Miami 4/1 (5.00). The draw is 16/5 (4.20)

Check out the latest, The Ball Is Round Podcast (Episode 29). Recorded Sunday evening, the TBIR team discussed the upcoming Inter-Miami v CFM clash (with special guest Michelle Kaufman of the Miami Herald), and looked back on the 0-2 reverse against Vancouver Whitecaps...

They talked the Montreal football issues of the week and covered all the usual favourite features... including, Eve’s Time Machine Social Media & CHOICES... Don’t miss it!

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