As coronations go, Monaco’s 4-0 win over Lille at the Stade Louis II was almost pitch-perfect, a performance that was a seamless microcosm of the team’s style and the success that it has produced this season. Thomas Lemar had a wicked cross from the left flank headed in by Radamel Falcao, Kylian Mbappé all but embarrassed Franck Béria before slipping the ball back across goal for Bernardo Silva for Monaco’s second goal, and Danijel Subasic delivered a handful of fine saves to preserve a clean sheet. Each of the quintet have their own compelling narrative, as all, with the exception of Falcao have become household names almost overnight on the back of an unlikely title and an even more improbable run to the semi-finals of the Champions’ League.
For Falcao, the season has been, if not a return to the heights of his time at Atletico Madrid and Porto, at the very least, a firm rebuke to a raft of critics in England, that group of naysayers who had written off the Colombian as a has-been after a pair of underwhelming loan spells in the Premier League. Still just 21, Lemar has overcome doubts about his size and goal-scoring ability to become one of Monaco’s creative fulcrums as well as a regular part of the France squad. His eight assists are a total exceeded by only three players in Ligue 1; one of those is Silva, who has shaken off an injury that saw him miss the European Championships to become arguably the best player in France.
Mbappé’s story is well-trodden by this point, but the youngster still looks nowhere close to having reached his full potential. He failed to score against Les Dogues, but both of his two assists were magisterial, with his close control against Beria particularly mesmerising. Subasic has had a somewhat less impressive campaign, with notable gaffes against Tottenham, Manchester City and Bordeaux, but on this occasion he was superb, even as Lille looked to be in the ascendancy in the twenty minutes or so following Monaco’s opener.
All of these storylines and more were on display, dovetailing perfectly to form Monaco’s inimitable style and narrative. The size of their achievement should not be understated. Yes, granted, they too have a billionaire owner and the resources to recruit and hone some outstanding players but their operating budget is still roughly a third of their Parisian rivals while the intertwining threads that make up their success story were not pre-packed, transplanted or parachuted in. Fabinho was scouted from mid table Portuguese side Rio Ave, only signed initially on loan and has moved from right-back into central midfield where he now dictates Ligue 1 games and Champions’ League knockout ties. Kamil Glik was hardly seen as a Champions League standard defender at Torino, despite his consistency, but has quietly had an outstanding season and is an underrated component of the Monaco machine. Not to mention Benjamin Mendy’s huge leap on from Marseille, Jemerson’s increasing astutely play alongside Glik, only joining from Atletico Mineiro last summer or especially Jardim’s deft redesigning of his team’s outlook to become arguably the most exciting on the continent and wipe away the 30-point deficit to PSG from last season. This title has been won, not bought, and gloriously so.
Lille had more possession and more shots and even suffered more fouls, but the hosts’ individual skill and ruthlessness on the counter were, as they have been in all but eight of their matches in the league, no match for the opposition. Even with Fabinho at right-back, a position he has played sparingly in recent times, Monaco showed no hangover from their losses to Juventus in the Champions’ League.
An early goal had eased any potential nerves, and even as Lille dominated portions of the first half, there remained an inevitability about the result, even as, some four hundred kilometres to the northwest, Paris Saint-Germain were doing their best to keep the title race alive, thrashing Saint-Étienne 5-0. That result means the title is not mathematically yet Monaco’s, but the Parisians would need to make up eighteen goals without the leaders earning a point mid-week against Saint-Étienne or next Saturday at Rennes, a rather unlikely set of circumstances.
With the title now assured, questions have inevitably been raised about the sustainability of the Monaco project. Press reports in France have suggested that the club are willing to let two players go this summer. One of those seems likely to be Tiemoué Bakayoko, with Chelsea apparently attracted to the hulking midfielder as a potential upgrade on Nemanja Matic. Djibril Sidibé had been close to joining Arsenal in the summer before opting for Monaco over concerns about playing time for the Gunners, but if Hector Bellerín returns to Barcelona, as some have suggested, Sidibé could be on the move as well.
These rumours are but a few of literally dozens making the rounds, but Monaco have already begun to build with an eye towards the future, as the club appear to have secured the services of young Belgian international Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht this summer. An attack-minded central midfielder, his tactical versatility and eye for goal make him an ideal replacement for Bakayoko, even if he lacks the former Rennes man’s physical presence. More players are sure to follow, but Monaco also have an impressive stable of players out on loan as well.
Allan Saint-Maximin’s dazzling ability on the ball has impressed at Bastia, while Corentin Jean and Rony Lopes have also looked good in flashes. The Malian midfielder Adama Traoré, a former U-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner, likewise remains an intriguing, if erratic prospect, despite being starved for playing time with Portuguese club Rio Ave. In short, while many may worry that seeing this Monaco team is akin to a sort of footballing Halley’s Comet, a rare phenomenon not often repeated, there is every indication that the team’s hierarchy see their player policy as being highly sustainable.
The lack of competition for Ligue 1’s top places, at least compared with the Premier League, allows the team to attract young players who have proven themselves to some extent, but are not yet full-fledged stars. This thus keeps their transfer fees relatively affordable, while allowing for a profit to be made by selling them on. Add in the lure of the chance to play high octane, attacking football in the Champions’ League and Monaco are, despite being likely to have major departures this summer, well-positioned to sustain their success, despite the envious glances and ready chequebooks of Europe’s giants.
1 | Monaco forward Kylian Mbappé’s explosion in 2017 has been one of the most compelling stories of the European season but to the keenest of French football observers it has not been altogether as surprising. Last summer, Mbappé’s five goals in helping France to the European Under 19 Championship title announced his bamboozling skill, turn of pace and eye for goal on a continental stage. But a 4-0 routing of Italy in the final saw the emergence of a generation of players who have gone of the have a sizeable impact on this Ligue 1 campaign and now that same generation of players will reconvene 12 months later in South Korea for the under 20 World Cup. Ludovic Battelli, the under 19s winning coach, will not have Mbappé to call upon but his squad still oozes with Ligue 1’s brightest talent. Alban Lafont broke into the Toulouse team at just 16 and has rapidly developed under the prevue of the inspirational Pascal Dupraz into one of the league’s best goalkeepers. Scorer in last year’s final, rangy Toulouse centre back Issa Diop’s pace, reading of play and aerial ability has helped protect Lafont and could see him get a move to a side playing Europa League or Champions’ League football next season.
The captain at Under 19 level, Lucas Tousart has cemented his place at the base of the Lyon midfield, while attacking midfielder Amine Harit has continued his superb form from the Euros with Nantes, their most impressive player for much of the campaign. Christopher Nkunku was not part of the under 19’s triumph last summer but he has been at the forefront of Unai Emery’s thoughts this season, always impressing when given the chance at PSG throughout the campaign while his Parisian counterpart and striker Jean Kévin Augustin claimed both top scorer and best player in Azerbaijan last summer and will again lead the attack here, ably aided by the unpredictability of Bastia’s premier performer in 2016/17, winger Allan Saint-Maximin. The talent throughout the squad is frightening and this generation could be pushing their predecessors at senior level, like Mbappé has, sooner than everyone might expect.
2 | In the shadow of Monaco’s surge to the top Ligue 1, the relegation fight has been somewhat overlooked, but it continues to be one of the hardest and most closely fought battles in Europe, with just one match-day remaining. Coming into the penultimate round of games, the bottom five were separated by just five points, with the bottom four set to play each other yesterday. Bastia, bottom at the start of play, and lucky not to out of sight after incredibly escaping a points deduction after their fans vaulted hoardings to attack Lyon players last month, played Lorient who sat in the relative safely of 17th. Defeat for Bastia would have very likely seen them relegated but goals from on loan Bordeaux striker Enzo Crivelli and an audacious half way line lob from Gaël Danic saw them take a monumental 2-0 win in a game played behind closed doors at a neutral ground as a result of the incident against OL. Lorient who had been six points adrift at the bottom themselves not long ago have now been dragged back into the relegation play-off spot (18th) and have a difficult encounter with Europa League chasing Bordeaux on the final day.
Bastia meanwhile, now just a point behind Lorient, travel to the Vélodrome for their final game. Nancy now foot the table and will at the very best find themselves in the relegation play-off spot having succumbed 2-0 at Dijon. Nancy manager Angel Correa has done a commendable job with very limited playing resources, making very few changes to the team that won Ligue 2 last season. However, their lack of quality has finally caught up with them after some prudent rotation in the middle third of the season that ensured that players remained fresh positioned the team in mid-table. They now need results to go their way and beat St Étienne on the final day to stay up. Dijon hauled themselves up to 16th with that win, level on points with Caen, and now look favourites to stay up despite just a point between them and the bottom three, a trip to an ‘on-the-beach’ Toulouse side is by far the simplest of the final day encounters. Caen on the other hand travel to Paris next weekend hoping that PSG will have one eye on the cup final.
Results: Monaco 4-0 Lille, St Étienne 0-5 PSG, Nice 0-2 Angers, Montpellier 1-3 Lyon, Bastia 2-0 Lorient, Caen 0-1 Rennes, Dijon 2-0 Nancy, Metz 1-1 Toulouse, Nantes 4-1 Guingamp, Bordeaux 1-1 Marseille.
Team of the Week: Yohann Pelé, Olympique de Marseille; Youssouf Sabaly, Girondins de Bordeaux, Kamil Glik, AS Monaco, Jemerson, AS Monaco, Maxwell, Paris Saint-Germain; Lucas Moura, Paris Saint-Germain, Marco Verratti, Paris Saint-Germain, Cheikh N’Doye, Angers SCO, Frédéric Sammaritano, Dijon FCO; Kylian Mbappé, AS Monaco, Radamel Falcao, AS Monaco.
Goal of the Week: Gael Danic, SC Bastia.