Champions League Favourites: AS Monaco 03/04

As Kylian Mbappe’s strike from distance sailed beyond the reaches of a helpless Daniel Subasic, Didier Deschamps was vindicated. For all of the complaints regarding his style of play and squad selection, he managed to secure France’s second ever World Cup after captaining them to their first twenty years ago. This also was the first trophy he has won with the national team having come close in The Euros. Two years ago favorites France lost the final to an average Portugal team after a winner from Eder in extra time. While this loss threatened to shatter his work with the national team, the first big stage final he lost at club level defined his managerial career.

It was the 2004 Champions League Final and two underdogs were the contestants for the biggest club trophy in the world. Perhaps the Champions League is now being monopolized by three or four elite clubs but 14 years ago that was not the case. Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto swept aside the likes of Manchester United to eventually beat AS Monaco 3-0 and secure the title. That game not only meant that Mourinho was the hottest manager in world football but it earned him the Chelsea job. Things would have gone differently had Deschamps won that trophy. He may have gone to Chelsea instead of Jose and embark upon a totally different managerial career path. He may also not prioritize defensive organization more than going on a full blaze attack as was the case with his Monaco side back then.

The loss somehow swept the amazing job he had done at Monaco under the rug. The subsequent years of struggle saw faced by the club both on and off the pitch also meant that Deschamps was a forgotten man. He was made to wait for his moment of glory. During the 2006-2007 season, he helped his former club Juventus win the Serie B title and return to Serie A. He was back on top when he won the Ligue 1 title at Marseille in 2009–10.

A mixture of nostalgia and joy surround me when I remember that Monaco side. A team that not only made me fall in love with the Champions League but also introduced me to players that I kept on following and admiring for years to come. They were a team made up of a perfect blend of stars and young talent and a team that knew how to defend as well as attack. Despite suffering one of the most comprehensive Final losses in the competition’s history, their journey was unforgettable. They say no one remembers the runners-up but it is very hard to forget about this team.

Monaco were in Group C, alongside Deportivo La Coruña, PSV Eidenhoven and AEK Athens. They managed to beat Deportivo 8–3, a game that effectively kick-started their magical journey. Croatian striker Dado Pršo scored four goals on his birthday, while captain Ludovic Giuly found the net twice with Jérôme Rothen, Jaroslav Plašil and Èdouard Cissé completing the rout. After two further draws against PSV Eindhoven and AEK Athens, Monaco finished at the top of Group C.

After beating Locomotive Moscow on away goals Monaco came face to face with European giants Real Madrid.  After a 4–2 loss in Madrid, Monaco shocked the world by defeating Los Blancos 3–1 at home and knocking them out of the competition.

The team played an attack-minded 4-3-3 with Real Madrid favourite Fernando Morientes the man up front, on loan from the Santiago Bernabéu. The towering figure of Croatian striker Pršo created havoc in the opposition’s defense and a vibrant Patrice Evra, who was 23-years-old at the time, ran up and down the wing with sheer, blistful energy. The standout performers of that team were the creative sparks, Giuly and Rothen. Giuly was the talisman and he left for Barcelona that summer. He also scored some memorable goals in the run-up to the Final. Rothen had six assists in the Champions League, the most alongside Deco. He had pace and outstanding crossing ability.

Back in May Morientes spoke to ‘FourFourTwo’ about what it was like to knock Real Madrid out of the Champions League:

“That was a special moment for me because I was on loan from Madrid and I never thought we would end up playing against them; against my team-mates, my friends. It was difficult for me, though, and hard to know my feelings during the game. When I scored at the Bernabeu it was tough, but when you’re a professional footballer you need to do the same as before no matter who it is against. It wasn’t revenge… because when you are a professional, you know how things go. You can be sold, you can go out on loan, and it’s normal. If you play for a big club, that’s how it is: you can score, play a lot of games, but in one moment maybe the club wants to sell you and you’re out. That’s how it goes in football.”

Monaco’s recent transfer strategy to try and sign young players and sell them for a profit has made them free from financial crisis. But on the other hand, PSG are pulling away with their exuberant spending. Monaco did win the Ligue 1 title in 2016/17 but with Neymar’s arrival and Mbappe’s departure the gap between the two sides was palpably large and looks that it will continue to widen in the coming years.

Perhaps the heroics of the 2004 team can be a good reminder that it is possible to challenge and upset the odds.

Monaco became the underdog sweethearts that season. Similarly, the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid were everyone’s second favorite team in their journey the Champions League Finals in 2013 and 2014. Sometimes football is not all about winning. Sometimes you will fondly remember the losers more than you do the Champions.

By Brooke Genene with artwork by Johnny Mulholland

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