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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Monaco's challenge to face up to Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1

The loss of key players is not new to Leonardo Jardim's men, but trying to get the better of their big-spending rivals from the French capital for a second successive season will be a tall order.

The goals of Radamel Falcao, left, will be crucial to Monaco's hopes of retaining the Ligue 1 title. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
The goals of Radamel Falcao, left, will be crucial to Monaco's hopes of retaining the Ligue 1 title. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

France’s Ligue 1 kicks off on Friday, and observers would be forgiven for thinking that the championship has taken on the trappings of an Olympic Game, with what looks rather like a bold, noisy fanfare of an opening ceremony.

So distracting have been the plans around the glitzy, imminent unveiling of Neymar as a Paris Saint-Germain player, the most expensive by far in football history, that a few reminders of the state of play are probably in order.

The first is that lavish, extravagant PSG are not the champions of the league they reside in.

The second is that, for all the ostentation the Paris club are currently displaying, they are not French football’s greatest entertainers right now either.

For those ready to pause, divert their fascination away from the historic arrival of Neymar in the capital of France, his back turned on Barcelona, there are shows to the south, too:

The highest-scoring club in Europe over 2016-17 are in action tonight, Monaco beginning the defence of their national title on Friday against Toulouse.

That is the Monaco who scored 107 goals in their 38 Ligue 1 matches last season, the Monaco who reached the semi-final of the Uefa Champions League, having elbowed out Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund on the way.

It is the Monaco who bumptiously challenged the notion that PSG, the big-budget bullies of Ligue 1, treat the league as their own playpen.

PSG had cruised to titles for four successive seasons until 2016. Monaco halted that run and did so with an appealing elan about their football.

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They are a unique club, and in many respects better positioned than any to defy the modern tendency of clubs from big cities to dominate.

There is plenty of wealth in Monte Carlo, being a tax haven for the international jet-set, but the economies the football club deal in are nothing like on the scale of PSG's.

Hence the inevitable sales that have marked Monaco's summer so far.

Bernardo Silva, the Portuguese playmaker has gone to Manchester City, where he has since been joined by the forward-thinking left-back Benjamin Mendy.

The total yield from those two alone should bring in well over €100 million (Dh435.1).

Add the transfer of commanding central midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, to Chelsea, and Monaco’s retailing of three of the younger players who shaped their success over the last 12 months has brought in funds in excess of €150m.

That, most likely, is not the end of the exodus. Kylian Mbappe, the 18 year-old who made such thrilling contributions in the second half of the campaign, is subject to sustained interest from Real Madrid, one of a number of clubs ready to stake a vast fee on a player whose apparent maturity should not be mistaken for experience.

Mbappe started more matches on the substitutes’ bench in Ligue 1 last season than in the starting XI.

But still he would be missed if he goes, as may Valere Germain, the striker who has moved to Marseille and who, like Mbappe last season, provided an excellent foil for the renaissance of Radamel Falcao, Monaco’s worldly, goalscoring skipper.

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For Monaco to maintain a belief they can keep their French crown, Falcao will need to stay in the goals, trust that Youri Tielemans, recruited from Anderlecht for €25m, can form as effective a partnership with the excellent Fabinho in midfield as Bakayoko did and that Jorge, a young Brazilian left-back, provides similar ammunition from his flank as Mendy used to.

There are reasons for optimism. Crucially, Leonardo Jardim has stayed as coach, admired though he is by the established heavyweights around Europe.

The Portuguese, beginning his fourth season in charge, has a fine eye for a player's potential and talks, always calmly and a little enigmatically, of “my belief in a team that develops ecologically”.

What that means is that, though the garden has been raided, Jardim has probably planted enough seeds for the next blossom.

He has lost young talent before – two summers ago, the young players Anthony Martial (to Manchester United), Layvin Kurzawa (PSG), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid) and Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter Milan) all left at once – and after that Monaco managed, indeed they took the departures as a stimulus to develop the side that wowed France, and Europe’s elite, in 2016-17. “That was a dream season, and to think we can repeat it exactly is to misunderstand football,” cautioned Jardim.

“Some players have gone, but the most important ones are the ones who have stayed.”