Who: AS Monaco, last year’s runner-up in France’s top league, making its first trip to the Champions League quarterfinals in 10 years.
When: Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. Eastern against Italian champion Juventus in Turin.
Why: Because English power Arsenal has become terrible in Champions League, and Monaco was lucky enough to draw it.
If you grew up in a household build on Dynasty, Falcon Crest and L.A. Law, AS Monaco is easily the more intriguing team in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals. Last year’s runners-up in France did so a year after being promoted from the second division, completing a return to power for a principality team granted access to the French league. Then the rest of the league got jealous of Monaco’s tax-free world, the club’s sugar daddy owner got a high-profile divorce, and two of the team’s best players took their talents to bigger stages. Yet Monaco’s still alive in Champions League, reaping the virtues of last year’s results.
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The current squad feels like One Tree Hill’s cast the year after graduation. The shows biggest stars, Chad Michael Murray (Radamel Falcao) and Hilarie Burton (James Rodríguez), are on the outs, but some people are still interested in the show. So it’s got to stumble on. Sophia Bush (João Moutinho) is still around, and there are some new, young cast members to love (Geoffrey Kondogbia), but the show has a fraction of its former potential. If it wasn’t for Arsenal arsenaling the teams’ Round of 16 matchup, this show would have been cancelled.
Why Monaco matters: Two years ago, the seven-time French champions were in the second division, but thanks to some of that nice Russian oligarch cash, the team was able to bounce back and position itself as an alternative to Paris Saint-Germain. Don’t like the Qatari-funded Ligue 1 overlord? Why not make room in your heart for the Russian-funded one?
But as most Russian elites have learned as their country’s economy collapses, power derived from wealth can be fleeting. And when Dmitry Rybolovlev’s wife won a high-profile divorce settlement from a Swiss court, the clock may have struck midnight on Monaco’s dream. Granted, you never know how (or, to what extent) these transnational divorce rulings get enforced, but shortly after the decision, Monaco’s ambitions became curtailed.
Colombian star James Rodríguez was sold to Real Madrid, a perfectly reasonable decision given the inflated transfer price, but the hobbled Radamel Falcao also found a new home, albeit only on loan. Both moves were great business for Monaco, but since when was the club more interested in acquiring cash than spending it?
What’s left is a decent team trying to secure a Champions League return. Out of the title race in France, Monaco is battling to finish in the league’s top three. And in that light, having made the Champions League’s quarterfinals, the team has already fulfilled this year’s European ambitions.
The cool in Monaco: Monaco is a club that represents a lifestyle more than a soccer culture. The European principality is part tax haven, part playboy’s paradise – the act one gambling sojourn of any respectable Bond film. Opulent casinos, private beaches, and Formula One races are the principalities’ true currencies. If six or eight thousand happen to make it to the Stade Louis II to see a soccer game, so be it.
From a sporting point of view, it’s a ridiculously laid back atmosphere. From a life point of view, it’s an easy “why not?” Athletes can accept soccer-level wages in a tax free world, not worry about the myopic pressures of other countries’ ports cultures and just enjoy life.
That might not make for the kind of “get stuck in,” “live and die for the crest” culture some like, but that some is probably going to be drinking Carlsberg and eating pies after the game. I’m sure Monaco’s elites are fine with Moët and caviar.
Watch this player: As Monaco has refocused its resources, it really has stayed true to the spin. Young French players like Layvin Kurzawa (22), Tiemoué Bakayoko (20) and Anthony Martial (19) have received significant time, while imports such as Fabinho (21, Brazil), Yanick Ferreira-Carrasco (21, Belgium), and Bernardo Silva (20, Portugal) are also regulars in the squad.
It makes the “I saw him before he was great” angle strongest when watching Monaco, part of the reason to focus on the aforementioned Kondogbia. The 22-year-old deep-sitting midfielder is learning his trade along side former France international Jérémy Toulalan, who helped anchored Lyon to the last handful of last decade’s seven straight titles. But as opposed to the intelligent but physically limited Toulalan, Kondogbia has a chance to be one of the world’s best at his position, with his superior size, athleticism and physicality coming with superior potential. Given the way Monaco’s battle with Juventus should play out (e.g., mostly in Monaco’s half), Kondogbia could be vital.
He’s already moved twice, from Lens to Sevilla to Monaco, but given three cracks with the French national team, his next move is likely to be a big one. Monaco is sure to hold onto him for a little longer, so when he does move, it will likely be for much more than his currently estimated $15 million value.
What Monaco has to do: Nobody doubts the ability of Leonardo Jardim’s team to defend. Couple that with the patience we saw in the last round against Arsenal, and Monaco has a chance, albeit a small one.
A veteran team like Juventus is unlikely to be as naive as the Gunners, meaning the opportunities to break into attack will be more scarce. But if Monaco can find a few, it may be able to isolate defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. And it only takes one road goal to dramatically change a Champions League playoff.