15 December 2014

Man U's done us a solid in the Champions League draw...

After several years of tough draws—Bayern the last two years—we might be forgiven for celebrating a bit when this year's draw pits us against AS Monaco, arguably the weakest team we might have faced after Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico, and Porto. Not only are Monaco the least-intimidating of the group-winners, their group was itself one of the weakest—and the Monaco squad that earned an appearance in the group-stage is hardly the one that we'll face off against. This is not to suggest that they'll roll over and play dead, nor can we underestimate them. There's nothing wrong in admitting, however, that our chance at advancing is just a bit better than it would be against Bayern.

In which Chuba Akpom might have earned us a penalty.
It's well-worth remembering that, for as inconsistent as we've been in the Prem, we've done pretty darn well in the Champions League. A season ago, we almost won that year's Group of Death, which including Dortmund, Napoli, and Marseille. We couldn't quite replicate our performance from the season before when we very nearly toppled Bayern, but we did show that there's more fight in us than we'd been showing in England. My point here is that, whether we had drawn Bayern again, I like our chances. I like them a little more against Monaco.

They might be the surprise-winners of group C over higher-rated Benfica (5th), Bayer Leverkusen (15th), and Zenit St. Petersburg (19th). However, gone is Radamel Falcao, scorer of nine goals in 16 appearances last season (and two in two appearances this season). His season-long loan to Man U might end up as a gift of sorts to us, as it deprives Monaco of their most-potent scorer. We might point to his goal in the Emirates Cup last summer as evidence of how dangerous he is, but I think we all understand the stakes there, not to mention the broader body of work Falcao has produced when healthy. Perhaps even more damaging to Monaco has been the £70m transfer to Real Madrid of midfielder James Rodriguez, who tallied seven goals and eleven assists, and the £6m transfer to Newcastle of forward Emmanuel Rivière and his ten goals and two assists. For what it's worth, we saw Rivière on Saturday after he subbed on for Cissé, but I can't say he made much of an impression.

Speaking of impressions, there's one out there that derives from the fact that Monaco only conceded one goal in the group-stage, keeping five clean sheets. Impressive. On its surface. As you look at the rest of Group C, you'll see that only 17 goals were scored in total. Elswhere, there were seven teams that scored 15 or more goals on their own. In other words, to concede just one goal may say less about Monaco's impregnability and more about the group's overall ineptitude. In Ligue 1, Monaco have kept three clean sheets in row, including one this weekend over league-leading Marseille. Overall, they've conceded 18 goals in 18 Ligue 1 matches, nothing to sniff at but enough to shake a stick at. As implied above, Monaco may have quite a bit of trouble scoring. They've gone for three goals just once, against relegation-dwelling Bastia, and were held scoreless three times in the group-stage.

Playing mostly in a 4-3-3, Monaco does draw strength from its defensive organization, led by Jérémy Toulalan, Geofrrey Kondogbia (currently injured but due back in a few weeks), and João Moutinho. Most of their attack seems to come down the flanks, with Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco the most lively on the left. An old friend in Dimitir Berbatov will likely lead the line. Never known for pace even in his younger days, he's crafty and skilled enough to cause problems, and he's had a few moments against us in years past. He currently leads Monaco with five goals, but he may pose more of a threat creating chances for others. Assuming that we're back to full strength in our back-line, it's not idle boasting to think that we have enough to contribute to Monaco's goal-scoring woes.

At our end, it's possible that we may come in strengthened not just by players returning from injury but possible transfer-moves in January. Even if any new signings are cup-tied, their availablity in Prem fixtures before and after the first and second legs would keep our current players fresh for the French fray. Even if Arsène deems such additions as unnecessary, we've drawn an opponent whom we should be able to overcome, if not overwhelm.
  • First leg: 25 February at the Emirates
  • Second leg: 17 March at the Stade Louis II.
Of course, on the subject of Arsène, I suppose no column on Monaco would be complete without mentionig that he managed Monaco from 1987 to 1994, guiding them to the Ligue 1 title in 1988 and Coupe de France in 1991. It won't have much impact on the matches coming up, but it's an historical quirk worth mentioning. Rather than look too much to the past, though, we'll keep an eye on developments in Monaco to see just who it is we'll face off against.