The humbling of France’s leading club, PSG, and its leading manager, Arsène Wenger, last week have led to much criticism of French football but Monaco have recovered from first-leg deficits before
First Monaco conceded four goals in 24 minutes at Manchester City to fall from a position of dominance to a heavy defeat; then Bayern Munich put Arsenal over their knee and gave Arsène Wenger’s seemingly incorrigible offspring a merciless spanking; then Paris Saint-Germain managed to lower the tone even further by suffering a historic debagging in Barcelona. All in all it has been an embarrassing few weeks for French football.
Even if the Monaco manager, Leonardo Jardim, has advised his young team to act instead like one of the Three Wise Monkeys and cover their ears so that they hear no evil in the run-up to the second leg against City on Wednesday night, those players cannot help but be aware that lots of people are laughing at French football right now. So perhaps Jardim would be best advised to order his players to drink in the derision and use it as fuel to mount a heroic comeback for their own sakes and restore some honour to French football. Heck, any Ligue 1 suits still peeved at not being able to shake down Monaco’s billionaire owner, Dimitry Rybolovlev, might consider a reputation- and Uefa coefficient‑enhancing victory against City as payment in kind for absent tax contributions.
If Monaco players felt the need to look to history for further inspiration, they, like the taunters, could select the bits that suit their narrative. They could start by reminding themselves what happened the night after PSG’s misery in the Camp Nou, when Lyon stormed back from behind to beat Roma 4-2 in the Europa League. Or they could recall the time when a French team – Metz – staged an extraordinary comeback at the Camp Nou, recovering from a 5-2 aggregate deficit to win 6-5 in the first round of the 1984-85 Cup Winners Cup. Or they could give PSG some love by recalling the time the Parisian side overturned a 3-1 first leg defeat to Real Madrid by winning the home leg 4-1 in the 1993 Uefa Cup.
Or they could just consult their own club’s archives and see, for example, that in 2004, after a first leg in which they conceded four goals in half an hour, Monaco fought back to trounce Real Madrid at the Stade Louis II and advance to the semi‑final of the Champions League.
Most pertinently, Monaco’s players can just cast their minds back to three weeks ago at the Etihad Stadium, when for two‑thirds of the match they were superior to Pep Guardiola’s side. Things rather unravelled for them after that, of course, which is why they go into Wednesday’s match 5-3 down. But they will also go into it expecting to be more solid thanks to the return from suspension of the Brazilian centre-back Jemerson. And more importantly, they aim to go into it showing that their experience at City has made a young team more savvy.
Whereas only three of the 14 players who featured for PSG in Barcelona are French, the Monaco XI that sets out on a redemptive mission against City is likely to feature several of the most exciting young French talents alongside the wonderful Portuguese schemer Bernardo Silva and the rejuvenated Colombian veteran Radamel Falcao. The 22-year-old Benjamin Mendy and 22-year-old Djibril Sidibé showed while marauding down the flanks at the Etihad Stadium that they have far overtaken Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy in France’s full-back pecking order. Tiemoué Bakayoko, another 22-year-old, was omitted from the start of Monaco’s Ligue 1 victory at Bordeaux on Friday in the hope he will be as fresh as possible to help Monaco gain control of central midfield against City and Thomas Lemar, 21, could be asked to raid from wider. The 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé, who scored with precocious poise at the Etihad and has scored three goals in his past two matches, will be invited to add more spark to his glowing reputation.
There is no doubt Monaco have the firepower to regain the lead against City; if they do so, then their task will be to prove that they have already developed the fortitude to manage the game from that point on. Most French clubs need their players to learn exceptionally fast if they are to succeed in Europe.
The main reason for French clubs lack of success in continental competition – beyond any supposed lily-liveredness, domestic issues or overawed German referees – is financial, as in recent decades hundreds of the country’s best players have been lured abroad, meaning that by the time they have reached their prime, they were at foreign clubs. (PSG are an exception and, indeed, it is their serial progress to the Champions League knockout stages that has kept Ligue 1 as Europe’s fifth highest-ranked league.) Monaco have more money than most but prestigious foreign clubs are preparing to pounce this summer on their emerging stars. Knocking out City is a tall order but this team have the potential to rise to that challenge and, indeed, to restore French honour by become the first European club champions from that country since Marseille’s tainted victory in 1993. It may be the best opportunity this side get.
Originally published at The Guardian