Three years ago this week, Kylian Mbappé and Radamel Falcao helped fire a brilliant AS Monaco into the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. Ligue1.com looks back at the best run by a French representative in the competition in the last decade.
For all the millions spent by Paris Saint-Germain since the Qatari takeover in 2011, the capital club have not made it past the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite club competition. But Monaco managed it in that glorious spring of 2017, and their scintillating run will live long in the memory.
The quarter-final against a Borussia Dortmund side coached by Thomas Tuchel was one of the most dramatic ties in the modern era of the competition, albeit principally for events that happened off the pitch. The first leg in Germany was postponed by 24 hours after a bomb attack on the Dortmund team bus en route to the game which left their defender Marc Bartra with a broken wrist. Tuchel was unhappy the match was played at all, even the following day, and Monaco won 3-2 at the Signal Iduna Park with the brilliant Mbappé scoring twice.
Fast forward a week to April 19, and Dortmund arrived in the principality looking to turn the tie around. Tuchel and his squad were thrown again before the match as their bus was delayed on its way to the Stade Louis II by heavy traffic, and the kick-off ended up being put back several minutes. When the match did get underway, Mbappé and Falcao scored for Monaco in a whirlwind start. Marco Reus got one back early in the second half, but Valère Germain came off the bench to seal a 3-1 win and the only semi-final appearance for a Ligue 1 team since Olympique Lyonnais in 2009-10.
"This is the first time a team has made it into the semis after starting off in the third qualifying round. This team will go down in Champions League history," coach Leonardo Jardim beamed after that victory. His side’s run began against Fenerbahçe in July. Albert II, Prince of Monaco, called it "extraordinary, a fantastic feeling".
The principality side were hardly handed an easy path to the group stage, and it looked as though their adventure might end in July. They lost 2-1 to Fenerbahçe in Istanbul in the first leg of that third qualifying round. With first-choice goalkeeper Danijel Subasic sidelined, Morgan De Sanctis took his place between the posts but went off injured after just 13 minutes. Loïc Badiashile, just 18 years old, replaced him. However, they turned it around in the second leg, winning 3-1 with Germain scoring twice.
Villarreal were then sent packing in the play-offs, and Monaco found themselves in a tough group alongside Tottenham Hotspur, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow. No matter, Jardim’s side beat Spurs 2-1 at Wembley in their first group game. Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar scored their goals, and Europe started to sit up and take notice. After snatching draws at home to Leverkusen and in Moscow in their next two games, Monaco beat CSKA 3-0 at the Stade Louis II and then beat Spurs 2-1 again to win the group with a game to spare and eliminate their Premier League opponents.
Guardiola's City sent packing
What followed was a truly memorable last-16 tie against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Beaten 5-3 in England in a thrilling, end-to-end first leg as Mbappé scored on his first European start, Monaco won 3-1 at home in the return to go through on away goals. Tiemoué Bakayoko was the unlikely hero with a late header to swing the tie definitively Monaco’s way.
After seeing off Dortmund, Monaco found themselves in the semi-finals of the competition for the first time since Didier Deschamps’ team reached the final in 2004. It proved to be a step too far for Jardim’s side, who lost 2-0 at home to Juventus in the semi-final first leg in early May and could not overcome that deficit in the return in Turin, going down 2-1 despite Mbappé getting another goal.
However, sometimes the real enjoyment comes from the journey itself and it was an unforgettable one for Monaco, spanning 16 matches over more than nine months. Their failure to make the final was, of course, more than made up for as they claimed the Ligue 1 title in sensational style, scoring 107 goals and finishing eight points clear of PSG.
“Monaco as champions is worth four times Paris being champions,” said Jardim later. “I think it's the best season in Monaco's history: the league title, final of the Coupe de la Ligue, semi-finals of the Coupe de France and the Champions League."
Falcao's renaissance as Mbappé emerges
That season will be remembered for the renaissance of Falcao, who scored seven goals in the European run and 21 in the league, having previously been labelled a busted flush after two miserable seasons on loan in England with Manchester United and then Chelsea.
It will most of all be remembered for the emergence of Mbappé. Used sparingly in the first half of the season, he turned 18 in December 2016 and exploded on the pitch in the months that followed, finishing with 15 league goals and six in the Champions League, all of which came in the knockout stage. Named in UEFA’s team of that Champions League season, Mbappé became the second-youngest French goal-scorer in the history of the competition, behind only Karim Benzema.
“For next year, I promise an even better season,” he said later. But that would not be in Monaco, as he departed for PSG in August, going on to become the youngest player ever to hit double figures for goals in the Champions League and starring as France won the World Cup the following year.
His departure followed that of several teammates in the wake of that campaign, as Monaco were unable to resist the big money offers. Silva and Benjamin Mendy were sold to Manchester City, while Bakayoko went to Chelsea and Germain joined Olympique de Marseille. Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and João Moutinho left a year later, and Monaco have been struggling to pick up the pieces ever since. But they will always have the memories of that brilliant campaign.