As coronations go, Monaco’s 4-0 win over Lille at the Stade Louis II was almost pitch-perfect, a performance that was a microcosm of the team’s style and the success it has produced this season. Thomas Lemar had a wicked cross from the left flank headed in by Radamel Falcao; Kylian Mbappé embarrassed Franck Béria before slipping in Bernardo Silva for Monaco’s second goal; and Danijel Subasic delivered a handful of fine saves to preserve a clean sheet. Each of these five players has his own compelling narrative this season. With the exception of Falcao, they have become household names almost overnight on the back of an unlikely title and an even more improbable run to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Falcao has returned to somewhere near the heights he enjoyed at Atlético Madrid and Porto, offering a firm rebuke to critics in England, where he was written off after a pair of underwhelming loan spells in the Premier League. Still just 21, Lemar has overcome doubts about his size and goalscoring ability to become one of Monaco’s creative fulcrums as well as a regular in the France squad. Only three players in Ligue 1 have recorded more than his total of eight assists. One of those is Silva, who has shaken off the injury that kept him out of Euro 2016 to become perhaps the best player in France.
Mbappé’s story is well-trodden by this point, but the youngster still looks nowhere close to having reached his full potential. He failed to score against Lille but both of his two assists were magisterial, with his close control against Béria particularly mesmerising. Subasic has had a somewhat less impressive campaign – with notable gaffes against Tottenham, Manchester City and Bordeaux – but on this occasion he was superb.
The size of Monaco’s achievement should not be understated. Yes, they too have a billionaire owner and the resources to recruit and hone outstanding players, but their operating budget is still roughly a third of Paris Saint-Germain’s. Fabinho was scouted from mid-table Portuguese side Rio Ave (initially on loan) and has moved from right-back to central midfield, where he now dictates Ligue 1 games and Champions League knockout ties. Kamil Glik was hardly seen as a top-level defender at Torino but has been outstanding. Benjamin Mendy has improved massively since arriving from Marseille. Jemerson is becoming an increasing astute defender alongside Glik and he only joined from Atletico Mineiro last summer. All in all, Leonardo Jardim has deftly redesigned his team into arguably the most exciting on the continent while wiping away Paris Saint-Germains’s 30-point lead from last year. This title has been won, not bought, and gloriously so.
Lille had more possession, more shots and even suffered more fouls on Sunday, but the hosts’ individual skill and ruthlessness on the counter were – as they have been in all but eight of their matches in the league – no match for the opposition. Even with Fabinho at right-back, a position he has played sparingly in recent times, Monaco showed no hangover from their defeat to Juventus in the Champions League.
An early goal had eased any potential nerves, and even as Lille dominated portions of the first half, there remained an inevitability about the result, even while Paris Saint-Germain were doing their best to keep the title race alive by thrashing Saint-Étienne 5-0. That result means the title is not mathematically Monaco’s just yet, but the Parisians would need to make up 18 goals without the leaders earning a point mid-week against Saint-Étienne or next Saturday at Rennes.
With the title now all but tied up, questions have inevitably been raised about the sustainability of the Monaco project. Reports in France suggest the club are willing to let two players go this summer. One of those seems likely to be Tiemoué Bakayoko, with Chelsea apparently attracted to the hulking midfielder as a potential upgrade on Nemanja Matic. Djibril Sidibé had been close to joining Arsenal last summer before opting for Monaco over concerns about playing time in London, but if Hector Bellerín returns to Barcelona, as some have suggested, Sidibé could be on the move as well.
These rumours are just a few of the dozens making the rounds, but Monaco have already begun to build for the future, as the club appear to have secured the services of young Belgian international Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht this summer. An attack-minded central midfielder, his tactical versatility and eye for goal make him an ideal replacement for Bakayoko, even if he does not possess as much physical presence. More players are sure to follow, but Monaco also have an impressive stable of players out on loan as well. Allan Saint-Maximin’s dazzling ability on the ball has impressed at Bastia, while Corentin Jean and Rony Lopes have also looked good in flashes. Malian midfielder Adama Traoré, a former U-20 World Cup Golden Ball winner, remains an intriguing if erratic prospect, despite being starved for playing time with Portuguese club Rio Ave.
Many may worry that seeing this Monaco team is akin to a sort of footballing Halley’s Comet, a rare phenomenon not often repeated, but the club think they can sustain their position. The lack of competition for Ligue 1’s top places, at least compared with the Premier League, allows the team to attract young players who have proven themselves to some extent but are not yet fully fledged stars. This keeps their transfer fees relatively affordable, while allowing for a profit to be made by selling them on. Add in the lure of the chance to play high-octane, attacking football in the Champions League and Monaco are well positioned to sustain their success, despite the envious glances and ready chequebooks of Europe’s giants.
• Monaco forward Kylian Mbappé’s explosion in 2017 has been one of the most compelling stories of the European season but to the keenest of French football observers it has not been altogether as surprising. Last summer, Mbappé’s five goals in helping France to the Under-19 European Championship title announced his bamboozling skill, turn of pace and eye for goal. The 4-0 routing of Italy in the final was the starting point for a generation of players who have had a big impact on this Ligue 1 campaign and will reconvene later this month in South Korea for the Under-20 World Cup. Ludovic Battelli, who was in charge of the Under-19s last summer, will not have Mbappé to call upon, but his squad still oozes with talent. Alban Lafont broke into the Toulouse team at just 16 and has rapidly developed into one of the league’s best goalkeepers. Issa Diop, the rangy Toulouse centre-back who scored in the final last year, has the pace, aerial ability and intelligence required to play in the Europa League or Champions League next season. Lucas Tousart, the captain at Under-19 level, has cemented his place at the base of the Lyon midfield. Attacking midfielder Amine Harit has continued his superb form from the Euros with Nantes, their most impressive player for much of the campaign. Christopher Nkunku was not part of the Under-19’s triumph last summer but he has been at the forefront of Unai Emery’s thoughts this season, always impressing when given the chance at PSG throughout the campaign while his Parisian counterpart and striker Jean Kévin Augustin claimed both top scorer and best player in Azerbaijan last summer and will again lead the attack here, ably aided by the unpredictability of Bastia’s premier performer in 2016/17, winger Allan Saint-Maximin. The talent throughout the squad is frightening and this generation could be pushing their predecessors at senior level, like Mbappé has, sooner than everyone might expect.
• In the shadow of Monaco’s surge to the top Ligue 1, the relegation fight has been somewhat overlooked, but it continues to be one of the most closely fought battles in Europe. Coming into the penultimate round of games, the bottom five were separated by just five points, with the bottom four set to play each other yesterday. Bastia, bottom at the start of play, and lucky not to out of sight after incredibly escaping a points deduction after their fans vaulted hoardings to attack Lyon players last month, played Lorient who sat in the relative safety of 17th. Defeat for Bastia would have very likely seen them relegated but goals from on-loan Bordeaux striker Enzo Crivelli and an audacious halfway line lob from Gaël Danic gave them a monumental 2-0 win in a game played behind closed doors at a neutral ground. Lorient, who had been six points adrift at the bottom not long ago, have now been dragged back into the relegation play-off spot (18th) and have a difficult encounter with Europa League-chasing Bordeaux on the final day. Bastia meanwhile, now just a point behind Lorient, travel to the Vélodrome for their final game. Nancy now foot the table and will, at the very best, find themselves in the relegation play-off spot having succumbed 2-0 at Dijon. Nancy manager Angel Correa has done a commendable job with very limited playing resources, making very few changes to the team that won Ligue 2 last season, but their lack of quality has finally caught up with them. They now need results to go their way and beat St Étienne on the final day to stay up. Dijon hauled themselves up to 16th with that win and now look favourites to stay up despite just a point between them and the bottom three, a trip to an on-the-beach Toulouse side is by far the simplest of the final day encounters. Caen, on the other hand, travel to Paris next weekend hoping PSG will have one eye on the cup final.
Monaco 4-0 Lille, St Étienne 0-5 Paris Saint-Germain, Nice 0-2 Angers, Montpellier 1-3 Lyon, Bastia 2-0 Lorient, Caen 0-1 Rennes, Dijon 2-0 Nancy, Metz 1-1 Toulouse, Nantes 4-1 Guingamp, Bordeaux 1-1 Marseille.