Russian billionaire Dimitry Rybolovlev’s dreams of making AS Monaco one of Europe’s elite clubs may have taken some serious knocks over the last year, but Arsenal fans would be mistaken if they believe the Ligue 1 side now represent easy passage to the Champions League quarter finals.
Monaco’s gritty 1-0 away victory at local rivals Nice on Friday night, which moved them up to fourth in the league, showed that the men from the principality won’t be visiting the Emirates this Wednesday night to simply make up the numbers.
UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules and a €55 million payment to the French league to settle a long running dispute about the wage inequity caused by the principality’s status as a tax-free state have caused the club’s owner to rethink a project that had looked like rivalling those of Manchester City, Chelsea and PSG in terms of largesse.
So when Monaco visit London this week, it won’t be as a swaggering, expansive, exciting football dream team set on joining Europe’s nouveau riche. Gone is the magic of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao – brought in during the club’s massive €150 million splurge on players in the summer of 2013.
And gone with them is Claudio Ranieri, who master minded the club’s return to the top flight in 2013 and their impressive runners up finish last season.
In their stead, we have Leonardo Jardim’s rather more prosaic and workman-like side, who while lacking the star quality of Ranieri’s team have shown this season that Arsenal will underestimate them at their peril.
Monaco retain some household names in a squad that blends youthful exuberance and serious experience. Big money signing Joao Moutinho and former French international Jeremy Toulalan patrol the midfield aided by the considerable and burgeoning talent of Geoffrey Kondogbia, while the veteran Ricardo Carvalho still lines out in defence – although injury is likely to see him miss Wednesday night’s tie. And up front, there’s a familiar foe for the Arsenal in the languid figure of Dimitar Berbatov.
Financial reality now sees Monaco focusing more on young talent rather than ready-made stars, and in Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Bernardo Silva, they have two attacking players with very bright futures.
Carrasco is an exciting winger from the prolific Belgian production line, while Silva, who came off the bench to score Monaco’s late winner on Friday evening, is a Portuguese attacking midfielder recently recruited from Benfica. Both have the ability to exploit any Arsenal sloppiness.
But it’s as a defensive unit that Monaco currently excel. Jardim’s men boast the best defensive record in Ligue 1 – having only conceded 19 goals in their 25 league games and managing an impressive 13 clean sheets.
Add to that the fact that they conceded only one goal in their six Champions League group games, and you get a picture of the defensive quality the Gunners will face over the two legs.
Scoring goals is a problem though. Monaco have only netted 26 league goals this term.
Berbatov is their top scorer with a lowly seven, the last of which came almost a month ago, and Mark Rodden, Ligue 1 commentator for Setanta, feels that the Bulgarian will find it hard to make his presence felt against Arsenal.
Berbatov still has the vision and predatory instinct, but he’s not the player he was. He’s 34, has struggled with injury this season and is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with matches coming every three or four days in league and cup competitions.
What attacking threat Monaco may pose will likely come from Moutinho’s promptings and the exciting Carrasco, who loves to cut inside from his wing and let fly.
Ultimately, however, Rodden feels Arsenal should prevail – ostensibly because of the French side’s problems in front of goal. That said, he warns that Monaco under Jardi…
…have developed a healthy habit of soaking up pressure and grinding out a result even when they don’t play well. They have the ability to make things difficult for the Gunners and have to be respected.