In football, there are some seasons which start more slowly than others. AS Monaco's 2007/08 campaign is no exception to this rule. After an apparently healthy opening to the season in August, the club from the Principality then went on a run of six defeats in eight games, which saw them plummet down to the lower reaches of the Ligue 1 table.
At the time the coach Ricardo did not hold back, stating "I feel my job is under threat". However, deep down, the former Bordeaux boss knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
"The team have put in some real Jekyll and Hyde performances, even in the course of the same game", continued the Brazilian last November, at the lowest point of the bad run. "I'm not unduly concerned though as there have still been a lot of positives and results are bound to pick up. I think that I've already found the right system, I'm just looking for a bit more balance to add to the side. For instance, I don't really have any wide players and I need the front men to link together a little better."
Ricardo then attempted to change his personnel around. It was
just at the time when his biggest critics were sure that he was
"risking everything" by blooding so many youngsters, that
the coach set the seven-times Champions of France, whose last title
came back in 2000, back on track.
Since November, the Principality based club has lost on only two of its last eleven outings in all competitions. All this is down to a group of young players who are as talented as they are determined. So far this season, eight players who have come through the ranks at the club have featured in league games. If Serge Gakpe, Jaroslav Plasil (since moved on to Osasuna) and Stephane Ruffier are no longer the revelations they were, it is now Djamel Bakar (18 years old), Malaury Martin (19), Cedric Mongongu (18), Vincent Muratori (20) and Massamba Lo Sambou (21) who are hitting the headlines.
Ability throughout the entire side
Muratori has turned into that much vaunted full-back that Ricardo was searching so hard to find. In 17 Ligue 1 encounters, the left footed player has made the position his own, relegating to the bench the summer acquisition and winner of four league titles with Lyon, Jeremy Berthod.
After taking a few games to settle in, the U-21 international no longer needs any invitation to get forward and join the attack. In short, in just a few months, he already has all the ideal attributes of the modern player. His mentor never tires of praising his young player. "He has a good attitude and I have to say that I'm not surprised by how far he has come. He's done really well in the first half of the season."
Just across from him, in the centre of the Monaco defence, the Senegalese Sambou is forming a rock solid partnership with the experienced Sylvain Monsoreau. Exit the Brazilian Bolivar and his 2006 Copa Libertadores medal he won with Internacional of Porto Alegre, and the same goes for François-Joseph Modesto and his previous career in Italian football with Cagliari from 1999 to 2004. The defender, 1.88 metres tall and weighing 75 kilos, has impressed everyone with his physical strength and his positional sense. He made his debut on 12 January at home to Lorient at the Louis II Stadium, and even managed to grab all three points for his team, getting the better of three defenders to score with his head.
The front man Bakar has also had the pleasure of making the difference on his first appearance in the first team. Having featured for just six minutes in the 0-0 draw away at Toulouse on 24 November 2007, the U-19 international enjoyed his first decent run-out on 6 January away to Ligue 2 side Brest in the last 32 of the Coupe de France.
When he came on Monaco were 1-0 down. One hour later, the striker who can also play as an attacking midfielder had clawed his team into extra time and then taken them through to the next round with three opportunist goals. As a result of Jan Koller's recent return to Germany to join FC Nuremberg, Bakar could well be presented with a few more opportunities to play.
A history of famous internationals
"When I first arrived I quickly targeted the very best players in the Academy," commented Dominique Bijotat, head of Monaco's Academy. "And without a doubt Djamel was the most complete player in there. He can be a real success because he has everything you need to play at the highest level. He is highly skilful, explosive and is exceptionally quick. What is more, he has a strong personality and a real conviction within him. He knows what he wants and he has the wherewithal to do it".
As AS Monaco's attacking department seems to be well catered for, Ricardo will look favourably at choosing these last two little pearls in the defensive midfield role. Martin and Mongongu have therefore clocked up more than 1000 minutes in Ligue 1, the former displaying a little more skill along the way than the latter. Captain of Monaco reserves and all the junior French national sides he has represented since he began his career, Martin is already thought to be one of the best prospects in French football.
After making a name for themselves in Monaco, its players will doubtless be aiming to join that large colony of French internationals who began their careers in the Principality. Perhaps one day their names will even have a place of honour alongside such famous ex-players as Jean-Luc Ettori, Manuel Amoros, Emmanuel Petit, Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet.