Ligue 1’s top two meet on Sunday night in a game which could put PSG nine points clear of last season’s winners, who are enduring a difficult campaign
Looking around at the disconsolate bodies on the field in the Stade Louis II on Tuesday night, one found it difficult to process the fact that the team just eliminated from the Champions League courtesy of a 4-1 hammering by RB Leipzig were the Ligue 1 titleholders.
In many ways, though, they weren’t.
This wasn’t the same side that had become the darlings of Europe last season for dethroning Paris St-Germain in France, while at the same time reaching the Champions League semi-finals. Against Leipzig, coach Leonardo Jardim could only field five regular starters from the remarkable 2016-17 campaign.
Djibril Sidibe and Thomas Lemar were injured and, therefore, unavailable but the other four? Gone. Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva left for Manchester City, Tiemoue Bakayoko is now at Chelsea, while the wonder boy Kylian Mbappe absconded to Paris.
The heart has been ripped out of Monaco and it could well have been worse had Lemar been signed by Arsenal on deadline day, or Fabinho gone to Manchester United or – worse still – PSG.
It’s left Monaco with some searching questions to answer.
“It’s not just because players left in the close season, even if that explains a lot of it because we lost five starters,” defender Kamil Glik told reporters after. “We can’t look for excuses and now we have to focus on the league to ensure that we’re back in the Champions League next season.”
Vice-president Vadim Vasilyev is generally good when it comes to fronting up. On Tuesday, he faced the music and expressed his disappointment with the team’s elimination from Europe.
“We’re hugely disappointed,” he told reporters. “They have messed up the European campaign. In football, there are difficult times, and this is one of them. I didn’t like that the players’ heads dropped so quickly.”
A few days before, Vasilyev was present with Monaco’s season-ticket holders for an annual sit-down alongside an assortment of players and the coach, Leonardo Jardim.
Monaco might not draw great numbers week-to-week at their yellow-seated stadium atop a car park but the core of their support is as committed and demanding as any other team out there.
Many in attendance pointed the finger at Vasilyev and the club’s transfer policy for their failure to launch this season. Monaco are already six points behind PSG – following last Friday’s draw with Amiens – and will probably consider the title well and truly out of reach should they lose at home to Unai Emery’s side on Sunday.
Their Champions League programme has been an embarrassment, with only two points to show from five matches. Jardim is naturally finding it hard to draw better performances from a squad shorn of their four best players. As a result, fans want answers.
“At the end of last season, you promised that the team would not be too disrupted,” one remarked. “You gave Fabinho an exit ticket and eventually we lost Mbappe when you did not want to reinforce PSG – a rival team. We do not understand.”
Another said: “We understand why you have sold Mbappe but do not disappoint the supporters saying that sales will not take place.”
“I honestly never said that no one would leave, but it’s true that I said there would be no big departures,” Vasilyev replied. “These departures are part of our success and it is difficult because we take bets and risks when we choose replacements. We have to do it to be competitive.
“We have ambitions, we play to get on the podium. We can’t live a 2016-2017 season every year. We have a competitive team and we are progressing.”
The money brought in for Mendy, Silva, Bakayoko, Mbappe (£166 million next summer) and Valere Germain was record-breaking but the new signings have not yet hit the heights.
The likes of Terence Kongolo, Youri Tielemans, Stevan Jovetic, Keita Balde and Adama Diakhaby might well come good in time but expectations were raised – perhaps unreasonably so – last season. Monaco’s inability to replace what they’ve lost is hurting them.
“Football is cyclical and we need to respect the cycles,” Jardim said on Tuesday. “Maybe as our players develop and as our club develops we’ll be better prepared for next season’s competition.”
Monaco’s modus operandi is largely defined by buying low and selling as high as possible. Over the past few seasons it has worked like a charm. Although they were not in the shakeup for trophies Monaco still banked huge sums for the likes of James Rodriguez, Anthony Martial, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Layvin Kurzawa, Aymen Abdennour and Yannick Carrasco-Ferreira.
The title win put it in fans’ minds that Monaco could maybe keep their players and compete on equal footing with the likes of PSG. But it was never going to be like that. PSG have the limitless backing of the state of Qatar; Monaco – while flush through the cash of owner Dmitri Rybolovlev – are not in the same bracket.
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The difference nowadays is that their sporting director, who was in place from 2013-2016 and helped lay the foundations for their title win, Luis Campos, has decamped for Lille. His replacement Antonio Cordon lasted barely a year and left in July.
Losing players is a natural consequence of the way they work. It is just unfortunate that so many of their fruits were ripe for picking at the same time. Monaco, then, are facing a season of upheaval and not one of progress.
Out of the Champions League and again second fiddle to PSG; no steps forward and two steps back.