Gallic Leicester or genuine class? – Monaco’s stunning season

Photo: PA Images

DID ANYONE really anticipate Monaco being among the last eight in this season’s UEFA Champions League? Or that they would be top of Ligue 1 with eight games to go?

People tend to look no further than Paris when they discuss French football, but this season, PSG have had some genuine competition. The post-Zlatan era has not, so far, been as comfortable for the club as they might have liked, but they still remain the most glamorous and the most resourced of all French clubs. Nice have had their moments this season, but the Ligue 1 title race is now down to two clubs and Monaco are in the driving seat.

Increasingly, it is looking like PSG won’t win a fifth successive title as Monaco will have to slip-up. They’re three points ahead of the champions and have a vastly superior goal difference, so PSG need the leaders to lose their focus not once, but twice.

Perhaps we should not be that surprised by Monaco’s resurgence. After all, their playing budget of EUR 145m, as listed by France Football earlier this season, is bettered only by PSG’s EUR 540m and Lyon’s EUR 218m, but the gulf is still very significant.

But did we not all believe that Monaco’s inflated investment had been compromised due to the divorce of Dmitry Rybolovlev, who owns two thirds of the club? According to media reports, this was why Radamel Falcao was offloaded to Manchester United on loan.

At the time, the cynics claimed that the Monaco dream was over, also stymied by Financial Fair Play (FFP) as well as the owner’s marital problems. Amid a blaze of publicity, Rybolovlev invested in Monaco and vowed to make them a European force. In 2013, they spent heavily on players, including EUR 60m on Falcao, EUR 45M for James Rodriguez and EUR 25m on Joao Moutinho. These were bold signings, aimed at competing with the recent dominance of PSG. Their coach in 2013 was Claudio Rainieri, but by the summer of 2014, he had gone, to be replaced by Leonardo Jardim, the former Sporting Lisbon manager.

Rodriguez and [temporarily] Falcao had also gone and the club hinted that Rybolovlev would no longer spend as much money on luring big names to the principality. The club’s vice president, Vadim Vasilyev commented:  “There are two ways to go – one is either you invest a lot of money and do it quickly, the other is you build-up an intelligent project and you have to base yourself on your academy and sound principles of working and scouting well, and basically that’s what we’ve decided to do.”

And it is paying dividends for Monaco. The team is arguably one of the most exciting in Europe, packed with young talent and certainly free-scoring. In Ligue 1 they’ve netted 87 in 30 games and we all saw how their attacking style can be entertaining when they came up against Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League.

A number of their players have caught the eye this season and are now on the summer shopping lists of the very top clubs. Striker Kylian Mbappe is just 18 and was picked up from AS Bondy. He’s been called “the new Thierry Henry”, a former Monaco player who made a similar impact at Mbappe’s age. The youngster is already being courted by English Premier clubs Arsenal and Manchester United.

Portuguese midfielder Bernardo Silva (22) is coveted by Bayern Munich and Chelsea, with figures as high as EUR 70m being quoted. Silva has gone on record as saying he wants to play in England or Spain “one day”, but with Monaco flying, his price may never be higher than it is at the moment. Chelsea have their eyes on midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko (22) who was signed from Rennes three years ago and Thomas Lemar a 21 year-old who arrived from Caen two years ago. He has been compared to none other than Iniesta by some experts.

Another player who may be receiving offers is Benjamin Mendy (22) who was called up to the French squad after an impressive season. Mendy was quick to remind certain French football pundits they had declared they would “eat a rat” if ever Mendy became an international!

It all points to one thing for Monaco – they have to win big this season for their current squad is likely to start breaking-up this summer. As well as all of the aforementioned players, 24 year-old Djibril Sidibe, who was signed in the summer from Lille, may also be on his way to one of the many clubs interested in him.

Can Monaco persuade their young stars to remain with them? There’s no shortage of money in comparison to most other French clubs, but the prospect of playing outside France, in front of bigger crowds and greater financial rewards, might be too much for a group of youngsters with their peak years ahead of them.

Monaco are the poorest supported club in Ligue 1, or at least they have the smallest crowds. With an average of 9,000 (the capacity at the Stade Louis-II is just 18,500), it is scarcely the sort of audience to make opponents quake with fear.

But this Monaco team, with its pace, skill and insatiable appetite for goals, certainly causes anxiety in opposition defences. In the UEFA Champions League, they have got past Villareal, Tottenham, Leverkusen, CSKA Moscow and Manchester City. Dortmund are next, which should make for an interesting couple of games. By then, Monaco may be closer to lifting the Ligue 1 title and they could even have some silverware in their hands – they face PSG in the Couple de la Ligue final on April 1.

Remaining Ligue 1 games:

Monaco Home: St. Etienne, Dijon, Toulouse, Lille Away: Angers, Lyon, Nancy, Rennes

PSG Home: Guingamp, Montpellier, Bastia, Caen Away: Metz, Angers, Nice, St. Etienne

How they shape up

  Monaco PSG
Owners Dmitry Rybolovlev (66.67%); House of Grimaldi (33.33%) Qatar Sports Investments
Playing budget EUR 145m EUR 540m
Ligue 1 1st 2nd
Goals scored 87 60
Goals conceded 26 21
Coupe de France QF – Lille (h) April 4 QF – US Avranches (a) April 4
Coupe de la Ligue Final – PSG (n) April 1 Final – Monaco (n) April 1
UEFA Champions League QF – Dortmund R16 – Lost to Barcelona
Average Attendance 9,096 44,998
Top scorer Radamel Falcao  16 Edinson Cavani   27
Yellow cards 43 44
Red cards 3 1
Ligue 1 titles 7 (last one 1999-00) 6 (last one 2015-16)
Coupe de France 5 (1990-91) 10 (2015-16)
Coupe de la Ligue 1 (2002-03) 6 (2015-16)
European titles won 0 1 (1995-96)
European finals 2 2
Last five years Ligue 1 3, 3, 2, 1 (ii), 8 (ii) 1, 1, 1, 1, 2

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