The Champions League’s return last week reminded how good watching the world’s premier club competition can be. Cristiano Ronaldo’s unquenchable craving for goals no matter how ugly they might look, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City putting Basel to the sword, Liverpool pulverising Porto and Tottenham’s comeback at Juventus confirmed once again that the knockouts are when the tournament jerks to life.
And still to come: Chelsea v Barcelona and the return of Bayern Munich, Roma and Manchester United. Missing, though, will be the team that energised last year’s competition with performances of attacking brilliance and what appeared to be limitless potential. Monaco’s wealth of young talent reminded of mid-1990s Ajax, early-1990s Manchester United and in French football terms, the 1994-5 Nantes double-winning team that included Christian Karambeu and Claude Makelele.
But Monaco, France’s champions, could not even extend their participation in this season’s European football beyond December, finishing bottom of a group containing Besiktas, Porto and RB Leipzig.
That Monaco could not repeat last year’s heroics is little surprise considering that they have had to live without Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoué Bakayoko and Kylian Mbappe. The first two are at Manchester City, the third Chelsea, while Mbappe is on an FFP-swerving “loan” at Paris Saint-Germain.
Once PSG pay the £166m they owe for Mbappe, Monaco will have banked £330m in fees from last summer. It might have pushed way beyond £400m had Thomas Lemar not decided to turn down an £92m move to Arsenal on August 31. Last summer’s arrivals of Stefan Jovetic, Rachid Ghezzal, Keita Balde Diao and Adama Diakhaby reduced net transfer profit to a mere £266m, a sum upped by January’s £19m sale of Guido Carrillo to Southampton.
Manager Leonardo Jardim never got to see his team of all the talents mature, or even get a second series. He lost the chemistry that took Manchester City apart in last year’s round of 16, in a first leg in which losing 5-3 proved they could puncture Pep Guardiola’s defence and then in the return, a 3-1 win in the Stade Louis II in which Mbappe brought out John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov in hives.
A year on, life beyond the Principality has not been easy for those who departed. Unfamiliar surroundings can stymie development, as that 1990s Ajax generation found. Patrick Kluivert misfired at AC Milan, as did Edgar Davids. Clarence Seedorf chose a free transfer to Sampdoria and it took a move to Real Madrid for him to flourish.
It was Bakayoko’s headed goal, Monaco’s third, that killed City in that second leg. That night, and his performances against Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-finals made the Frenchman look something approaching the complete box-to-box midfielder, coupling skill with athleticism.
Swapping in Bakayoko for Nemanja Matic at Chelsea, and for the same £40m fee the Serb was sold to Manchester United, looked an upgrade. Amid Antonio Conte’s grumblings about Chelsea’s transfer policies, he expressed approval of the Frenchman’s arrival but has recently been forced to defend someone whose touch and confidence have utterly deserted him.
“To arrive in this league and adapt very quickly is not simple,” said Conte of a player whose lack of fitness ahead of Barcelona received a social media shrug from Chelsea fans who once sang his name to the tune of Earth, Wind and Fire’s September but now refer to “Bakajokeo”.
Bernardo Silva, meanwhile, who was sensational in Monaco’s meetings with City last season, has been on the fringes of Guardiola’s all-conquering team. In that, with Kevin de Bruyne imperious and David Silva a club legend, there is no disgrace but even when the elder Silva has been absent with injury, the Portuguese has not played in his preferred playmaking position, instead playing on the flank in the absence of Leroy Sane. Had Riyad Mahrez got his wish and joined City in January, Silva would have enjoyed even fewer starts than the nine in the league he has received so far.
Silva is having to wait his turn, and so, and far more frustratingly, is Mendy as he recovers from a ruptured cruciate ligament problem, his role in City’s sensational season reduced to leading the banter from his Twitter account, and the madcap touchline run he made in a knee brace to celebrate Raheem Sterling’s winner against Southampton in November.
And then there is Mbappe, a player whose performances last spring brought positive comparison with another 1990s hero in Brazil’s Ronaldo. At times this season, Mbappe has outshone Neymar, specifically during the 3-0 dissolution of Bayern Munich that precipitated Carlo Ancelotti’s sacking, but the sight of him parked in heavy traffic on the wing during last week’s 3-1 PSG defeat at Real Madrid felt reductive.
At 19, time and perhaps even the second leg next month in Paris will grant Mbappe the chances to meet his towering potential but when catching him amid the PSG conglomerate, it is tempting to remember him amid his old Monaco mates, and mourn a team that was cashed in before it could ever grow.