Many in France will be assuming that this year’s league title will, unlike last time, go to the capital and to the cash-rich Qatari owned Paris Saint-Germain. Certainly none of PSG’s Ligue 1 rivals are able to keep up with the huge sums being splashed out by Carlo Ancelotti.
But there is one team in France who can compete financially with the Parisians.
AS Monaco, owned by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, are also experiencing something of an Italian revolution. Managed from this season by Ancelotti’s compatriot Claudio Ranieri (who replaced another Italian, club legend Marco Simone in the close season) and his coaching staff, Monaco are shaping up for an exciting period; Rybolovlev has pledged to spend €200M in the next four years after his takeover in the middle of last season. He is the 13th richest man in Russia and is determined that Monaco’s second season in Ligue 2 will be their last. When the Russian bought the club last December, there was a real possibility the side’s first season in the second tier would be their last, but for a different reason, languishing as they were near the foot of the table.
The 2011/12 campaign was a dismal one for a once great club, in the second tier for the first time in 35 years. Monaco were bottom of Ligue 2 for much of the first half of the season, before recovering in the second half of the campaign after Rybolovlev’s takeover. Despite steering the club through the traumatic period, Simone was fired and replaced by Ranieri this summer. The Italian has been busy, making full use of the millions now available.
Jakob Poulsen, Delvin N’Dinga, Emir Bajrami and Andrea Raggi are among those who have arrived, with Argentine midfielder Fernando Belluschi and Italian forward Alberto Gilardino the latest big names linked with a switch to the Stade Louis II. There are few teams for which having money to play with can be more fitting than that based in one of the world’s richest and most luxurious cities. The signings are experienced and internationals too, bringing a know-how to the principality that could be pivotal in helping the Monegasque outfit climb back into the top tier.
It really is a case of the (relative) calm after the storm for Monaco, who have spent most of the last decade experiencing huge change in the boardroom and on the pitch, losing their star names and not replacing them adequately, then going from manager to manager in a circle of decline which led to Ligue 2 football. The French side, having survived last year, are now looking like going back in the opposite direction. Thanks to Rybolovlev, a Monaco resident, the 2004 Champions League finalists have the talent to return to the top flight and then rediscover former glories.
For a team with such an illustrious history though, Monaco do not seem sentimental about some of the past favourites to have plied their trade at the Stade Louis II. Simone’s departure may seem harsh, but Ranieri wasted little time deciding to do away with the services of Ludovic Giuly. He was a key member of the team which reached the final of the Champions League in 2004 and returned to Monaco in what have been some of the darkest months in their history.
With former Chelsea and Inter coach Ranieri at the helm, Monaco at least have one of the key ingredients in place for football’s nouveau riche. Like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, bringing in a big name manager was crucial more for prestige than footballing reasons. There was first an audacious attempt to prise Roberto Mancini from Manchester City, which was probably more about the club’s profile than a genuine belief he could be attracted to the south of France.
As Monaco general director Filips Dhondt admitted “at the end of the season we thought it would be good to recruit a coach with an international reputation.” He added that Simone had “done a very good job since January.” The “since January” was quite a harsh comment in truth, given that the Italian had arrived at the club after a disastrous first few games of the season and the side had already begun their climb from danger when Rybolovlev took over. But everything about Monaco’s moves this summer has been about rebuilding the club’s reputation and standing outside of France, not just improving their fortunes on the pitch. And in Ranieri, the Ligue 2 side have a man capable of pointing them back in the right direction.
Ranieri has endured a difficult career at times, never quite bringing the success he has promised and being something of a ‘nearly man’, but nonetheless wherever the Italian has been he has usually improved the team. Valencia enjoyed their best success after Ranieri’s departure, but he laid the ground work by bringing through key young players such as Joaquin, Kily Gonzalez and Gaizka Mendieta. At Chelsea, Ranieri made a substitution too many for owner Roman Abramovich, but he also developed the side and signed players such as Petr Cech and Frank Lampard, laying the core foundations for the Blues’ success in recent years.
The system Ranieri adopts is the most interesting thing likely to be seen in Ligue 2 this season. The ‘Tinkerman’ demonstrated old habits die hard when he flipped between a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 in his first two friendlies in charge. Whichever system he eventually settles on, Ranieri should have enough about him to take Monaco back into the top flight, though as Paris Saint-Germain showed last season, money is no guarantee of success. However, like the Parisians in the top flight, the title race in the second tier seems rather one sided on paper. If Ranieri is successful, the two may be locking horns in an absorbing title tussle sooner rather than later.