A sense of optimism, finally, but a cursory glance at the Ligue 2 table highlights just how bad things have become.
It seems difficult to believe that it was less than eight years ago when AS Monaco were lining up against FC Porto in Gelsenkirchen, preparing themselves to battle for the first Champions League trophy in their history.
Today, they sit bottom of France’s Ligue 2, pondering on the possibility of relegation for a second consecutive season.
As I write, AS Monaco are playing their final game before France’s annual winter break. They host top-of-the-table Clermont Foot at the Stade Louis 2 stadium but have no chance of changing their league position by the end of tonight. They will have to wait until the New Year before picking themselves up from the unpleasantly embarrassing floor to which they have fallen. They sit four points adrift of safety with a significantly worse goal difference. You would not believe that it was so recent that this side were strutting themselves as one of Europe’s elite.
Last season’s relegation was hard to take for the crowd at the iconic nine-arch stadium as they saw their side relegated by the smallest of margins thanks to a final-day home defeat to Olympique Lyonnais. This loss ended their reign in the top tier of French football, where they’ve picked up seven league championships throughout their history.
2004 marked the pinnacle of Monaco’s coveted history and cemented their place as a European stalwart. A Champions League final only spoilt by defeat to FC Porto ended a majestic season for then-manager Didier Deschamp’s side.
Emmanuel Adebayor, Patrice Evra, Fernando Morientes and Jerome Rothen spearheaded a host of world-class players that featured in that memorable season, but today’s side now could not be more unrecognizable.
Only one remains. Between a wealth of trophies and honours including a Champions League winners medal, two La Liga titles and five domestic cups across spells with FC Barcelona, AS Roma and Paris St Germain, Ludovic Giuly – the man who captained his side through that memorable champions league campaign – has returned to south-east France to help Monaco get back to their old ways. Under Marco Simone, Giuly hopes that the club can discover their old ways that made them such a imposing force to come up against.
However, his mission is proving so far unsuccessful. Monaco lie bottom of the French Ligue 2 with an average attendance of fewer than 5,000 - the fourth lowest in the league. But where did it go wrong for Simone’s side?
Ever since the beginning of last season, Monaco had flirted with relegation throughout the campaign. The problem lay within the attack. They regularly played a 4-2-3-1 formation with South Korean Park Chu-Young playing a lone role upfront. The support from Moukandjo Bilé and Daniel Niculae was often less than sufficient and thus they found themselves loosing by the slimmest of margins on more than one occasion.
Monaco’s defence was the only reason they were in with a chance of survival right until the last minute. An impressive defensive midfield duo that often consisted of Nicolas N’Koulo and Thomas Mangani, who both have found moves away from the club since their relegation, kept the defence protected throughout the term. Statistics show that their role was vital in reducing the number of goals that passed into the net as Monaco conceded merely forty goals last season. Only Toulouse, Rennes, Marseille and Lille conceded fewer goals over the 38-game period.
AS Monaco’s firm defence but lacklustre attack meant they drew almost half of their games and ultimately that proved to be their downfall. Repeatedly dropping two points eventually sent them plummeting down the table. Other statistics make you wonder how Monaco found themselves in this situation as eleven teams lost more games than Simone’s side last season, including fifth-placed Sochaux. But assessing the negatives puts their relegation fight in a better perspective and it becomes more understandable. Only two sides won fewer games than Monaco, and those were the two teams finishing below them.
Since their affair with relegation began at the start of the 2010/2011 season, Monaco have undergone a complete regeneration within their squad. This summer saw an abundance of transfer activity including the departure of top-scorer Park Chu-Young across the English Channel to join Arsenal for 6 million Euros. Remarkably, a total of 23 players left the club during this summer’s transfer window and were replaced with simply 12.
A number of departures has seen a totally different story this year for Simone’s red and white army. They have conceded the most goals in the league by far and have only picked up three points on one occasion. The possibility of relegation for the second consecutive season is slowly turning from a distant odd-chance to a rapidly incoming nightmare.
Since that memorable final in Gelsenkirchen seven and a half years ago, Monaco’s league position has been in slow decline, producing an average position of tenth since their 2004 pinnacle. This seems respectable, but when you consider their Champions-League challenging mentality and their potentially world-class squad they possessed in the era of Didier Deschamp’s reign, you can understand why so many fans have turned their back on the club.
Fabian Barthez, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry add to a long-list of names that have graced the turf in their recent history but those days are long gone as their darkest period in their history is becoming a harsh reality.
Despite the dark and mist that Monaco have placed themselves behind this season, there is one gleam of hope at the end of the tunnel for the once-great club. Russian billionaire Dimitry Rybolovlev is expected to complete a deal to purchase the club before the end of 2011*. The club are in desperate need of a huge cash injection to avoid the risk of slipping further down the French league pyramid.
So as I complete this piece, it is evident that AS Monaco are in need of this investment more than ever. They have just drawn their 10th game of the season and remain bottom of the table. A 0-0 draw against title-winning candidates Clermont Foot is a decent result for Simone’s men, but at this stage in the season and with the position they currently occupy, the opposition becomes less and less relevant. For the future sake of AS Monaco and the future of French football, I hope Rybolovlev’s investment comes much sooner rather than later.
* Rybolovlev completed the purchase of a majority stake in the club on 22 December