Monaco vs Arsenal preview: Monaco's grand dreams revived by Champions League win at the Emirates

The French side shocked the Gunners in the first-leg with a well deserved 3-1 win

After the final whistle, Prince Albert II of Monaco and Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian potassium billionaire who owns the principality’s football club, walked across the Emirates pitch to salute the travelling fans.

Monaco had just recorded their best result since Rybolovlev bought the club, a 3-1 defeat of Arsenal that leaves them on the brink of qualifying for the Champions League quarter-finals. It was the type of European night that all his money had been spent for. Football credibility can only be won on the pitch and, by beating Arsenal like that, Monaco had achieved it.

This had always been the plan, back in 2013, when Monaco spent €150m on Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Joao Moutinho and more. Rybolovlev wanted to take his team into the European elite and that meant beating sides like Arsenal along the way.

What made the first leg three weeks ago so impressive, in fact, was everything that has happened since 2013. Last year Monaco realised how hard it was going to be to spend their way to the top. The French league imposed a €50m fine on the club because of their tax arrangements, while Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain were fined a similar amount for breaching Uefa’s financial fair play regulations.

Monaco swiftly changed direction, trying to claw back some of the money they had spent. It looked like an unravelling. James was sold to Real Madrid and Falcao loaned to Manchester United, while coach Claudio Ranieri was sacked and replaced by Leonardo Jardim from Sporting Lisbon. There was a new focus on young players, many of whom – Geoffrey Kondogbia, Anthony Martial, Fabinho, Wallace – were excellent at the Emirates.

Vadim Vasilyev, the vice-president of the club, accompanied Rybolovlev and the prince on the pitch after that game. Later that night he told The Independent it was a vindication of their strategy, and proof that there was still a plan to get to the top.

“The victory tells us that the project remains valid, that it’s ambitious, that it will continue, and it confirms that we are on the right way,” said Vasilyev, a former restaurateur and diplomat who runs the club. “This is the best response to everybody who said that the project doesn’t exist any more, that the project is dead, the president is going out. This is our response.”

 

It might not be the team that Rybolovlev hoped for three years ago – the plans to lure Cristiano Ronaldo with a €20m tax-free salary are long dead – but it is still a dogged, clever, competitive side. They have the best defence in France, conceding 20 goals in 28 Ligue 1 games this season. From late November to early February, in 16 games in all competitions, they conceded just once.

After beating Bastia 3-0 on Friday night, Monaco are fourth in the table and well placed to push for qualification for next season’s Champions League. Jardim is slowly turning this team around, proving that he was the right choice for the job.

“For our project we need a coach that is still not as well-known, not as renowned, that can grow with our project,” Vasilyev explained. “That is why we chose Jardim, for his work with young players, his understanding and being part of our project. For those who doubted him, it proves what we did was right.”

Even if Monaco are in next season’s Champions League, there is no prospect of a repeat of the 2013 spending. “It’s not possible,” Vasilyev said. “We have to live by our own means and be prudent.” They are still a useful team, though, and another tight defensive performance on Tuesday night will see them through to Europe’s final eight.

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