What became of Europe’s underdogs? – Monaco 2017?

Plucky underdog status is not usually reserved for a club hailing from one of the world’s richest principalities but hear me out. The season on AS Monaco in 2016-2017 is some story.

At the end of the 2010/2011 season AS Monaco were reaching their lowest ebb, finishing 18th in Ligue Un and dropping down to the second tier for the first time in almost half a century.

The club that had given the world Thierry Henry, taken a chance on an unknown Arsene Wenger and won seven league titles were fast becoming a case study in a model of poor management. Things were to get worse with Monaco falling to the bottom of Ligue 2 in December 2011.

Now this is not your traditional fairy-tale. It features a Russian billionaire (Dymytro Rybolovlev) and a transfer spending spree rarely seen in France. But only five years later Monaco were back at the top of French football, winning their eighth league title and in May 2017 were lining up within two games of their second Champions League final.

Juventus would beat them comfortably enough in the end (4-1 on aggregate) but it wouldn’t be the last you would be hearing of a squad packed full of youthful talent, now plying their trade at some of Europe’s top clubs.

Danijel Subašić – Goalkeeper (Free agent)

English fans may remember the Croatian as the man standing between Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and a World Cup final. That would be to do a disservice to a goalkeeper who enjoyed a fine career in his own right. Joining Monaco from Hajduk Split in 2012, Subašić was one of the first signings made when Rybolovlev took over the club.

Subasic joined a month into the Russian’s tenure and came as a 27-year-old keeper with a burgeoning reputation. It was one that only grew at Monaco and eight and a half years later he had amassed 292 appearances for the club. Enough to be the fifth highest appearance maker in the club’s history. Released in the summer of 2020 Subasic is currently without a club and at 36 looks likely to retire from the sport.

Nabil Dirar – Left Back/Winger (Club Brugge)

Moroccan international Nabil Dirar ring any bells? Me neither I’m afraid but through the absence of Benjamin Mendy he lined up in the first leg of their semi-final. A threat from defence, he often plays higher up the pitch and joined AS Monaco in the summer of 2012. Signing from Club Brugge for a €7.5 million transfer fee, it was the highest sum the Belgian club had ever received.

In the summer of 2017 he would seek a move away from Monaco and join Fenerbahce. Captaining the Turkish side he would score seven times in seventy-three appearances but would be frozen out of the side towards the end of his contract. He has just signed on loan for Club Brugge, coming full circle in a career that has included 41 international caps and an appearance at the 2018 World Cup.

Andrea Raggi – Right Back/Centre Back (Retired)

Italian defender Raggi would enjoy the high point of his career in a continental run which saw him play more times in Europe than he would do in the league. A career in Italy with Bari, Bologna, Empoli and Sampdoria he would be employed through Monaco’s Champions League campaign as a third centre back in a three five two formation. His effectiveness earned him a contract extension that would see him retire with the club as a thirty-five-year old Champions League semi-finalist and Ligue Un winner.

Jemerson – Centre Back (Corinthians)

Brazilian centre-back Jemerson would play 54 times in Monaco’s successful 2016/2017 season. New to the side he had joined the previous year from Brazilian side Atlético Mineiro. Often forgotten in a team with such explosive fullbacks, the centre-back would fall out of favour at Monaco and eventually return to Brazil with Corinthians. He has since established himself as a first choice centre-back in a side currently bobbing around in midtable.

Kamil Glik – Centre Back (Benevento)

Wherever he goes Polish international Glik seems to find his way into the manager’s plans. A mainstay at Torino, when he was sold to Monaco he went with a epitaph fonder than most:

“It has been five wonderful years, intense, full of emotions and mutual satisfaction”  said Torino in their official statement. Tough-tackling his propensity for important goals endeared him to fans. None more so than his last minute half volley snatching a crucial point against Leverkusen in the group stage.

In the summer of 2020 Glik signed a three-year contract with Benevento. He has provided a steadying hand, steering the Southern Italian club comfortably clear of the Serie A dropzone. Now 33, only ten players have made more appearances for the Polish national side and Glik will hope to add a few more caps to his tally of 79.

Djibril Sidibé – Right Back (Monaco)

Few players drew more acclaim in Monaco’s run than full back Sidibé. His performance against Spurs in the group stage was a major factor in the north London side’s failure to escape make the last 16. From there things started to snowball. Electric pace, dangerous crosses by the end of the season it was a matter of when, not if Sidibé would leave the south of France. A World Cup win with France only cemented his reputation. When Everton signed him on loan it was a genuine coup.

Twenty-five Premier League appearances later, Sidibé failed to set the Premier league alight, in a side adjusting to life under Carlo Ancellotti. Ultimately the Italian decided not to make the loan permanent and Sidibé now finds himself back at Monaco and without an international appearance in three years. Aged 28 it remains to be seen whether one of Europe’s hottest talents can recapture the form that had tongues wagging for a couple of golden seasons.

Benjamin Mendy – Left Back (Manchester City)

Mendy’s impact at Monaco was so explosive it is difficult to believe it lasted just the one season. He arrived at the club after three successful campaigns at Marseille.  Alongside Sidibé the pair’s devastating forward runs got the better of both Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund in their march to the semifinal.

Despite only playing 25 league games, critics deemed his performances to be good enough to be named one of six Monaco players in the Ligue Un team of the year and it is perhaps fitting that Manchester City were the side to pay £52m to bring him to Lancashire. Injuries haven’t helped him but Mendy now finds himself down the pecking order at City. Even Zinchenko has been preferred of late. Whether he can add some defensive maturity to his natural talent is the biggest question with the now 27 year old World Cup winner at a pivotal juncture in his career.

Bernardo Silva – Right Winger (Manchester City)

When Bernardo Silva arrived at the Stade Louis II stadium he did so with just a solitary league appearance for Benfica under his belt. Monaco had seen enough and the twenty-year-old winger quickly impressed enough to make a loan move permanent in January 2015. The rest, as they say, is history. Seven goals in forty-four appearances helped guide Monaco back to the Champions League before Monaco’s European adventure. Eleven goals in fifty-eight appearances for Monaco in 2017. Only Valère Germain played more for Monaco and Silva was one of Europe’s most wanted.

Pep Guardiola pulled the trigger and the Portuguese international continues to form an integral part of a City side winning the league at a canter. Their 2021 win was his third league title in Manchester.

Fabinho – Centre Midfielder (Liverpool)

With Liverpool’s current injury crisis perhaps we should be adding centre-back to his position but it was most definitely as a ball-winning, positionally aware and incisive defensive midfielder that Fabinho earned his stripes.

Joining Monaco on loan in the summer of 2013 he did so technically as a Rio Ave player, despite never having played for the Portuguese club. Looked over by Real Madrid, José Mourinho didn’t take up the option and Monaco took their chance. Fabinho made 233 appearances and was signed permanently in the summer of 2015. The Brazilian had well and truly broken through without earning the same acclaim as his headline grabbing teammates.

Under-utilised by Brazilian selectors (he has only 12 caps) Fabinho’s 2018 move to Liverpool came about for a reported initial fee of £39 million. With both Champions League and Premier League winning contributions, Liverpool fans will see a worthwhile return on their investment. Aged just 27 they’ll be hoping for many more years of the same.

Tiémoué Bakayoko – Centre Midfielder (Napoli)

Few players had more of an impact that Tiémoué Bakayoko. His breakthrough season all the more impressive given it was his first as a regular starter. It was good enough to earn him a place in the Champions League squad of the season. He was one of only two Monaco players. When Chelsea came calling to the tune of £40m it seemed Antonio Conte had signed a player destined to become one of the world’s best but it never really crystalised. Loan moves to AC Milan and back to Monaco followed and he now finds himself in Naples. A very good career and still only 26 the one cap wonder for France will be hoping to get back to his Monaco 2017 heights.

Joao Moutinho – Centre Midfielder (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

By the time Portugal’s second highest appearance maker moved to France, he came as a combative and skillful midfielder. And one that had already proved himself across nine trophy laden years with Sporting Lisbon and Porto. It is perhaps with little surprise that he left five years later having amassed over two hundred appearances for Monaco.

Whilst playing in the Champions league semi-finals few would have bet his next club would be in the Midlands. Even fewer that it would be Wolves, a side who would finish 15th in the Championship that season. In 2018 he made the move. Buying into Nuno Espirito Santo’s vision, with consecutive seventh place finishes he perhaps had more foresight than most. Now thirty-four Moutinho enjoys cult status in the Black Country.  

Thomas Lemar – Left Winger (Atlético Madrid)

As it did for many Monaco players, 2017 proved the most productive in the career of Lemar. Fourteen goals across the 2016/2017 season added an output to tricky feet and blinding pace. Despite a less productive 2017/18 Atlético Madrid had seen enough. They paid a reported €70 million for his signature. Three seasons down the line the goals have dried up and Lemar is currently recovering from COVID-19. Rumours persist of a move to the Premier League with Arsenal. Like many others the next eighteen months may define whether the twenty-five-year-old will force his way back into the France side and the highest echelons of world football.  

Radamel Falcao – Striker (Galatasaray)

AS Monaco and Falcao is a combination we all know well but in 2016/17 it was a different man we saw in a red and white shirt. He returned to Monaco after two unsuccessful loan spells with Manchester United and Chelsea. Once famous for his explosive power, acrobatic goals and ability to take hold of a game by 2017 he was a senior pro used to applying to the finishing touches for an attack around him drawing the plaudits.

Thirty goals in forty-three appearances it remains his best tally since leaving Atlético Madrid in 2013. Such an achievement perhaps went unnoticed in a team where others were having breakout seasons. The goals have continued for Falcao and whilst not perhaps the player only Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi could rival in Madrid he is now 35 and has scored 241 across twelve seasons in Europe. Not bad considering that included five goals across two seasons in England.

Kylian Mbappé – Striker (Paris Saint Germain)

Twenty-two years old, 140 first team goals, World Cup Winner Mbappé needs no introduction, though 2016/17 was the first in which we saw his talents. Six Champions League goals that season no player in the competition’s history has scored more goals as a teenager (13) and in the process the Frenchman earned the second Monaco place in the Champions League 2017 squad of the Season. His performance in the quarter final versus Dortmund was just one of many demonstrations of a quality we have come to expect from the maestro.

Mbappé would move in the summer to Paris for a rumoured €145 million plus €35 million in add-ons, the most expensive teenager in history. You know what happened next.

Valère Germain – Striker (Marseille)

Every team has a workhorse, a player that doesn’t take the plaudits but forms and integral role in the teams success. For Monaco in 2017 that was Valère Germain. Sixty appearances, seventeen goals, few ran more yards and in doing so he earned the rare distinction of having won both Ligue Un and Ligue Deux with Monaco. Named in the Ligue Un team of the year it was a starting return to the fold for a player who had spent the previous season loaned out to Nice.

Moving that summer to Marseille he has scored twenty-nine goals across four seasons including seven goals in their run to the 2018 Europa League final. Now thirty he will hope to force his way back into the starting line up and hope to return to the form which saw him score forty-nine goals across three seasons from 2015 to 2018.

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What became of Europe’s underdogs – Ajax 2017?

In an age of the biggest clubs dominating elite European competition it is easy to forget the clubs that upset the established order. In this series we will be casting our minds back to those plucky underdogs that made us fall in love with football again and what became of their stars.

It seems fitting that the first club we come to is one with a history of breaking with convention. The fathers of Total Football in the 1970’s recently money has had the final say, with the club becoming a finishing school for some of Europe’s finest players. Marco Van Basten, Johan Cruyff, Frank De Boer and Luis Suarez, its alumni rivals any in world football.

In 2017 Ajax under manager Peter Bosz dared to dream once more, exciting fans on their way to a Europa League final against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. Falling short at the final hurdle, Ajax’s efforts were ultimately overshadowed but their no compromise attacking style of football, packed full of burgeoning raw talent won them many fans and ultimately as we shall see, admirers along the way.

André Onana (Ajax)

Despite persistent interest elsewhere Cameroonian international André Onana still plays his football in the Dutch capital. Establishing himself as one of Europe’s hottest prospects he has amassed over 200 appearances for the club, all before his 25th birthday. Sources have reported the goalkeeper is ‘dreaming of a Premier League move’, with both Chelsea and Tottenham linked in January. He will be hoping for better showcases than his most recent trip to the UK, misjudging the flight of the ball to allow Curtis Jones to win the Champions League clash for Liverpool in December.

Joel Veltman (Brighton & Hove Albion)

Brighton fans will cite the impact Veltman has made in shoring up a once leaky defence and his skills are built on a decade long apprenticeship in Amsterdam. Now 29, Veltman played 246 times for Ajax, ten of these throughout the Europa League campaign, and has steadily amassed 27 appearances for the Dutch national side. A steady eddy throughout his career Graham Potter will be hoping he continues his consistency without drawing too much attention from better endowed suitors.

Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham Hotspur)

Given his recent inconsistencies at Spurs it is easy to forget that the Colombian international was once one of Europe’s most sought-after defenders, his signing in North London a genuine coup in the summer of 2017. The run to the Europa League final was in his one and only campaign with Ajax, joining from Colombian side Atlético Nacional at the start of the season. He would score six times that season including a spectacular bicycle kick versus AZ. Spurs fans will be hoping for a return to form for a defender who is still only 24, though after four seasons in the capital patience is starting to wear thin.

Matthijs De Ligt (Juventus)    

At 17 years and 285 days old, the Dutch centre back became the youngest player ever to play in a major European final, quite rightly catapulting his name into almost every major European club’s wish list. He would stay at Ajax for two more seasons, steadily growing his reputation to the point where he simply could stay no longer. 2018 winner of the Golden Boy award, by the summer of 2019 he had sparked a frenzy which culminated in a €75 million transfer to Juventus, choosing the Italian side over Man Utd amongst others. Still only 21 it is almost ludicrous to think he has already amassed 192 club appearances and will be hoping he can form a Champions League winning backbone in Turin, though they will have to overturn a deficit against Porto in the return leg.

Jairo Riedewald (Crystal Palace)

One of the least heralded players in the starting line-up left back Jaïro Riedewald has enjoyed a stop-start introduction to English football. Now in his fourth season with Crystal Palace the Dutchman has finally established himself in South London, though has done so in the centre of midfield. Roy Hodgson seems to have finally found the position which suits his game, winning Palace’s player of the Month in October. At 24 he will be hoping to build on his early promise.

Davy Klaassen (Ajax)

When Davy Klaassen signed with Everton and was quickly spotted partying with fans in the city, fans of the Toffees took the centre midfielder to their hearts. Unfortunately for Klaassen his moves on the dancefloor couldn’t be replicated on the pitch, making only seven Premier League appearances. Two seasons with Werder Bremen followed where the Dutchman has rebuilt his career, before a return home at the start of this season to the Eredivisie. His goalscoring form has returned and Klaassen will hope to win a fourth Eredivisie title at the end of May. Ajax currently sit 6 points clear at the top with a game in hand. Now 28 it remains to be seen whether Klaassen will chance his arm abroad once more or build on a burgeoning reputation at a club in which he is revered.

Lasse Schöne (Heerenveen)         

Danish international midfielder Schöne was an anomaly in an Ajax side mostly finding their feet in professional football. Just three days past his 31st birthday, Lasse was enjoying his fifth season with the club and would be a regular starter across seven seasons, before leaving in 2019 to join Genoa in Serie A. In that time he had scored 64 times in 287 appearances and won six titles with the Dutch club, a period in which he won the majority of his 50 caps for the national side. Fondly remembered by Ajax fans, he has recently signed with Heerenveen and scored on his debut.

Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea)

Signed from Twente in the summer of 2016, Ziyech was granted the opportunity to display his talents on the European stage. An impressive goal scoring record he proved equally adept as a provider with the video below coinciding with interest reaching fever pitch. Four seasons he would spend at the Dutch club, scoring 49 goals in 165 appearance before Chelsea secured his signature. A €40-million-man Ziyech hit the ground running, scoring in his first two starts for Chelsea but the West London club are still waiting to get the best out of the Moroccan international now six months down the line. Soon to be 28 the next few years are crucial for a player many tout as one of Europe’s finest wingers.

Bertrand Traoré (Aston Villa)

When Traoré started the Europa League final, he was doing so on loan from Chelsea. Four goals in eleven Europa League appearances he was an integral and destructive cog in a fluent machine. The Burkina Faso striker would leave Chelsea for good that summer, making the move to France and three productive seasons with Lyon. Signed by Villa in the summer of 2020, five goals in his last twelve appearances point to a striker now finding his feet at a Premier league club willing to make him one of their main men.

Kasper Dolberg (Nice)

In the summer of 2017 Dolberg was destined for the top. 23 goals in his first season in Holland he had been the focal point of the Ajax goalscoring machine and had done so all at the tender age of 19. When like De Ligts, he decided to stay few could begrudge his decision, one made with his long-term development in mind. He would move on but now wasn’t the time. His value would only rise. What happened next few could predict. Nine goals in his next season, twelve in 2018/19. Ajax’s prize asset was starting to diminish in value. With a contract winding down, Ajax cashed in, selling Dolberg to Nice for 20.5 million euros. Ajax had played transfer chess and on this occasion lost.

Eleven goals in twenty-three appearances in his first season, Dolberg is starting to finding his feet and just like in 2017 is one prolific season from a transfer to Europe’s elite.

Amin Younis (Eintracht Frankfurt)

In 2017 Younis was playing out of his skin, forcing his way into Germany’s squad and scoring twice in only five appearances. Things had clicked. And yet four years down the line this marks the high point in the 27-year-old’s career, one that has since taken him to Napoli on a free transfer and now Eintracht Frankfurt on a two year long loan.

At the time of writing, things are starting to turn. Fourth in the Bundesliga ahead of Dortmund, the Champions League is within reach and in Younis they have a winger who has found consistency and could once more prove his worth on the European stage.

The bench that day:

Diederik Boer (now retired)

Kenny Tete (Fulham)

Heiko Westermann (retired)

Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona)

Donny van de Beek (Manchester United)

Justin Kluivert (RB Leipzig on loan from Roma)

David Neres (Ajax)

Featured image “Davinson Sanchez Header” by DJDouken is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0