Rugrats of the Riviera — The AS Monaco story

There’s a French side lighting up Europe this season, and it’s not the rich boys from the capital. The team closest to threatening Paris Saint-Germain’s stranglehold over Ligue 1 and beyond are challengers no more. As they get ready to take on Juventus in their return to the Champions League last 4 after a decade, one wonders — how did they get here, and where are they going next? For that, we have to look at where AS Monaco came from.

Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, perhaps encouraged by compatriot Roman Abramovich’s overwhelming success since his takeover of Chelsea years earlier, sought to usher in a new era for one of France’s most successful clubs. It was never going to be easy however, with the side languishing in the Ligue 2 when Rybolovlev completed the acquisition in December 2011. This was going to be a project, and a long, hard one at that.

Before working the greatest miracle in Premier League history, Claudio Ranieri was tasked with reinstating Monaco to the top flight, which he did with ease, winning the 2012/13 Ligue 2 title. The real challenge started now.

Now back in the big time, Monaco had to persuade Europe’s finest talents to swap the bright lights of Spain and England for the French Riviera. Remember, Monaco was a newly promoted club playing in an 18,000-seater stadium without European football. Rybolovlev had to loosen his purse strings (to the extent of €150 million) to lure the likes of Radammel Falcao who was one of Europe’s hottest strikers on the back of a couple of stellar seasons with Atletico Madrid, as well as in-demand Porto duo James and Joao Moutinho, among others.

A steadily successful, if not brilliant campaign followed as they finished 2nd with ease, signalling the power shift in the domestic League, with Monaco and Les Parisiens the leading lights. Ranieri took his leave having steered them through this transition period, and in came relative unknown Leonardo Jardim from Portugal, where he oversaw an impressive season with Sporting.

Playing such eye catching football came at a price. It became increasingly hard to keep hold of their stars, and with Rybolovlev deciding to cut costs, player sales and loan deals en masse were all part of the new, less extravagant transfer policy. James, Falcao, Martial, Carrasco et al were snapped up by Europe’s giants and left a huge void in the squad. On the pitch the performance accordingly dipped with consecutive 3rd place Ligue 1 finishes and underwhelming European campaigns.

By the end of the 2015/16 campaign, many considered Jardim fortunate to be handed a year’s extension. While not a failure, his time at the club left a lot to be desired. He needed to turn a corner, and fast.

A season on and here we are. One hand on the Ligue 1 title and rubbing shoulders with the heaviest of heavyweights in the Champions League semis, Jardim has assembled perhaps the most valuable squad in all of Europe. They’ve run sides ragged with their relentless, electric attacking force, and the summer arrivals of Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibé and Kamil Glik have given them a solid defensive base as they pile forward in a bid to hurt teams.

The attack, however, is what puts them in a league of their own. The guile of Bernardo Silva and thrust of Thomas Lemar gives them purpose on the flanks. Tiemoué Bakayoko’s power and the tireless Fabinho keep things ticking over in the engine room. Up top, Falcao seems like the El Tigre of old, the torrid spell in England firmly behind him. But the crowning jewel in a team of rough diamonds is Kylian Mbappé.

The Mbappé-Falcao duo has been on fire this season

As a graduate from the famed Clairefontaine academy, it is only natural that Mbappé be mentioned in the same breath as its alma mater Thierry Henry, Nicholas Anelka and David Trezeguet, strikers who terrified defences with their sizzling pace, strength and finishing, much as he has done this season. Having only been promoted to the starting XI after turning 18 in December, he has since set Europe ablaze with his prodigious talent, scoring at a rate that has outstripped a certain Lionel Messi.

Jardim’s boys have been likened to the rugrats because of their boundless energy and carefree attitude in attack. Make no mistake, there’s a method to their madness. Set up in a highly aggressive variant of the 4–4–2 that maximises the damage caused by their stamina and flexibility, Les Monégasques are scoring at a frightening rate in a throwback to the glory days under one Arsène Wenger.

But now the unstoppable force must meet the immovable object. If Monaco can’t stop scoring, Juventus refuse to be breached. Having not conceded in over 500 minutes en route to the last 4, they dismissed Barcelona in the previous round, making light work of the deadly MSN. However, even Buffon and co. must know that Monaco are a completely different animal, and a predator at that.

The principality side have to do what they have all season — hit them where it hurts most. Everything is against them, and that is when they are at their most dangerous. They have arrived on the doorstep of the Champions League final by defying odds, something they must do again come Wednesday night.

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