“As I’ve said before, we are all aiming for the same objective – I want to win the league with my team and I don’t want any distractions getting in the way of that. That is my plan from now until the end of the season. After that, I’ll have two and a half months to decide where my future lies.”
Those were the words of Kylian Mbappe but they could just as easily have come from the mouths of Fabinho, Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy,
There is no shame in this young, dynamic Monaco side being comprehensively beaten by the older, wiser men of Juventus and only a fool would label them losers after they reached the semi-finals of a competition which they began without even the patronising tag of ‘outsiders’. No headlines would have been written outside France if Monaco had lost their first Champions League qualifying tie to Fenerbahce nine months ago. After all, this was France’s third best team.
By the time they reached Wembley to play Tottenham in the first game of the Champions League group stage, the fourth seeds could boast a seven-match unbeaten run in all competitions. Still, Mauricio Pochettino underestimated their brilliance and there was no Mousa Dembele or Victor Wanyama in their flimsy midfield. The goalscorers – Silva and Lemar – were then unfamiliar names. An awful lot has changed in eight months.
There is no doubt that Juventus have tugged at the hearts of many who would love to see a first Champions League win in over 20 years – the presence of Gianluigi Buffon and Dani Alves will do that – but the Old Lady will surely not mind that our heads have been turned by this thrilling, youthful, naive Monaco. The words ‘breath of fresh air’ have ironically become stale, but Monaco have been a welcome revelation.
If there is any justice in this world, Lemar and his teammates will end the season with the French title. Certainly, their 17-match unbeaten Ligue Un run (a proper unbeaten run, with only two draws) deserves that accolade. It will not be a shock of Leicester-like proportions, but bear in mind that esteemed journalists like Julien Laurens saw no other outcome but another PSG title win. According to him and almost everybody else: ‘The only two questions are when will they be crowned and how many points clear they will finish.’
The British media dismiss the French league as a couple of cousins removed from a real competition but it will be a phenomenal achievement for a Monaco side who spent barely half as much last summer as PSG, who had strode away with the title. The bulk of the money was spent on the youthful promise of Sidibe and Mendy – around £12m each but now both worth considerably more – following the previous season’s purchases of the equally youthful and promising Fabinho and Lemar.
The shame is that no team outside of Europe’s elite is allowed to overachieve and stay intact; they will be picked off like ducklings in the spring-time by the crows of Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Manchester and London. We can only hope that enough survive to swim in shallow waters once again.