Valentin Boulan remembers the AS Monaco 2003-04 side who reached the 2004 Champions League Final…
None of it was supposed to happen. When AS Monaco were drawn against Deportivo La Coruna, PSV and AEK Athens in the 2003-4 Champions League Group Stages, everyone had already worked out the outcome. Monaco would come third and end up in the mediocre UEFA Cup – not even Europa League yet. At best, they might come second and go out to the first credible contenders they face. Well, not quite…
What few realised at the time was the depth of quality within Monaco’s side, and indeed how many of its members would go on to become household names of European football. Managed by then rookie Didier Deschamps, who would go on to great things with Marseille and coach the National Team, Monaco was indeed solid in all areas.
Despite losing Rafael Marquez to Barcelona the previous summer, the French side sported a defence which included Internationals Gael Givet and Julien Rodriguez, as well as would-be revelation Patrice Evra. It also featured Sebastien Squillaci, who Arsenal fans may not know actually used to be a good player.
In midfield, Monaco had the best wingers in French football with captain Ludovic Giuly’s pace on the right and Jerome Rothen’s delivery on the left. At the heart of the team, Deschamps’ men combined the technical ability of the Czech Jaroslav Plasil with the physical impact of Lucas Bernardi and Akis Zikos.
Finally upfront, star striker Shabani Nonda’s long term injury would be compensated by Dado Prso, on loan Real Madrid superstar Fernando Morientes and a young, up and coming Emmanuel Adebayor. Add to the mix some relatively average players having the campaign of their life, and one begins to make sense of the Monaco anomaly.
Against expectations, ASM convincingly topped their group, earning a spectacular, Fifa Ultimate Team like 8-3 victory against Deportivo in the process. After getting past Lokomotiv Moscow in the first knockout round, Monaco made history by beating Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid Galacticos side, stunningly overturning a 4-2 first leg loss. Led by Real reject Morientes and Giuly, the game had a massive impact in France, and inspired a nation to rally behind Monaco.
Their next opponents were a developing Chelsea side, which already included the likes of Frank Lampard, Marcel Desailly and Claude Makelele. After a hard-fought tie, Monaco secured their place in the final at the Bridge. They had won the first leg 3-1, despite being down to 10 for most of the second half after Zikos was sent off for clashing with Makele. A final, less notorious but equally outstanding performance.
All in all, Monaco was a source of disappointment as the club came so painfully close to making history. After a hammering by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the final, they also missed out on the League title and came third, drained by an unusually long European campaign. As often the case when small teams get this far (and as their CL final counterparts would also suffer), the squad broke apart the following season, as players left for Europe’s elite clubs.
In the space of just a few weeks, the side was disassembled. Giuly moved to Barcelona , where he would win the Champions League in 2006, and Rothen was sold to PSG. Monaco also lost Prso, as well as a bunch of successful loanees such as Édouard Cisse and Hugo Ibarra. Most importantly, they failed to keep hold of talisman Morientes, who despite knocking Real out returned to Madrid as fourth choice striker behind Raul, Ronaldo and new signing Michael Owen. Evra left the following January for Manchester United and he too would go one better than Monaco, winning the CL in 2008.
While the achievement of the previous season and cash generated by sales allowed them to invest heavily on the transfer market, they made numerous poor recruitment choices. In particular, Monaco’s failure to replace its attackers and continuous purchase of big names past their prime (including the likes of Javier Saviola, Mohamed Kallon, Javier Chevanton and Jan Koller) had a big impact both on the club’s finance and results. As expensive flops came and went, Monaco slowly drifted away to mid table. The seemingly inevitable relegation came in 2011.
On and off the pitch though, Monaco’s 2004 side had a very real legacy. Morientes’ stunning headed goals and Giuly’s backheel winner in the Quarter Finals are still remembered today. When Rothen released his biography in 2008, the main talking point was an incident involving national hero Zidane lashing out against him, frustrated by defeat. And of course, there is the fairy tale’s tragic conclusion.
‘Le périple rouge’, as it became known, made us young French fans dream in a way only the national team could at the time. While seven times champions Lyon put together the strongest French team ever assembled, they never matched Monaco’s achievement in Europe. The same can still be said about new powerhouse PSG.