The turn of the 21st century brought trouble to a club fraught with financial danger. Arsène Wenger’s legacy, one that had benefitted his predecessors, was stifled at a club teetering on the verge of financial ruin. Teams that faced a similar situation to Monaco in 2003 were often never heard of again. However, just 12 months after they were ordered to drop down to Ligue 2, a side teetering on the edge reached the Champions League final and lived to tell the tale.
Two seasons of mediocracy after their title triumph in 1999/2000 almost landed the club in the relegation spots before a remarkable turnaround saw Monaco challenge for the championship once more in 2002/03. Their second-place finish under Didier Deschamps did, however, earn them a seat back at Europe’s top table.
On the pitch, things seemed to be going smoothly, with front line that included Ludovic Giuly, Dado Pršo and Jérôme Rothen exciting the fans again. Off the pitch, the story was very different, with financial difficulties seeing the club amass €50m worth of debt. That number was considered too high by the French Professional League and Monaco were relegated to Ligue 2.
Cries and appeals were enough to ultimately avoid that costly fate but the club was banned from buying players. Despite that, by working around tight regulations and through a few loopholes, Deschamps was able to assemble a strong squad. Monaco struck loan deals for six players, including Fernando Morientes from Real Madrid, Edouard Cissé from Paris Saint-Germain and a 19-year-old Emmanuel Adebayor from Metz. They also managed to keep hold of their star attackers, with Rafael Márquez the only notable loss.
The Champions League draw saw them pitted alongside Deportivo, AEK Athens and Dutch champions PSV in the group stage. Guus Hiddink’s side were beaten by goals from Morientes and Cissé in Eindhoven before Monaco dispatched AEK at the Stade Louis II. A setback in A Coruña was quickly forgotten when the two teams produced one of the most extraordinary games in Champions League history in the principality.
Javier Irureta had transformed Deportivo into one of the most competitive clubs in Spain, winning LaLiga and the Copa del Rey at the turn of the century. Names on the back of their blue and white shirts included Djalminha, Roy Makaay and Diego Tristán, among many others, who enjoyed successful spells during the club’s golden era.
Read | How a selfless Ludovic Giuly helped revive a broken Barcelona
However, Monaco had attacking prowess of their own and demonstrated that during a crazy first half that saw the hosts come in at the break with a 5-2 lead. The French duo of Rothen and Giuly had put Monaco two goals up after 11 minutes before Pršo hit a 19-minute hat-trick. Tristán and Lionel Scaloni replied for the visitors before Jaroslav Plašil added a sixth shortly after the restart and Pršo and Cissé sandwiched another Tristán strike. The final score of 8-3 reverberated around Europe and stood as the highest-scoring Champions League match on record until Borussia Dortmund and Legia Warsaw played out an 8-4 result in 2016.
Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink’s late equaliser saw Monaco drop points in the Netherlands before a goalless draw in Athens secured their position as group winners ahead of Depor. The last 16 draw sent Monaco to Moscow in February as Yuri Semin’s Lokomotiv were on track to reach the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time.
Marat Izmailov’s dazzling feet gave the Russian side the lead in freezing conditions at the RZD Stadium before Vladimir Maminov struck from the edge of the area to double the hosts’ lead. Morientes’ header 21 minutes from time would prove to be crucial going into the second leg in France. With Deschamps’ side needing just the single goal to go through, frustration began to kick in after Pršo squandered an opportunity to put Monaco ahead from the penalty spot in the first half. The Croatian’s sweeping second-half finish atoned for his earlier mistake and was enough to dump 10-man Lokomotiv out of the competition.
After few surprises in the group stage, European giants Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich all fell by the wayside at this stage. However, the draw for the quarter-finals landed Monaco at the feet of another continental superpower; towering above them in history, success and money were Real Madrid.
Despite being on loan from Los Blancos, Morientes was allowed to play by both his parent club and UEFA against the star-studded Gálacticos. The likes of Zidane, Beckham, Raúl, Figo and Ronaldo stood before an inexperienced Monaco squad at this level in the divided tunnel at the Bernabéu. Despite taking the lead before half-time through Sebastian Squillaci, Carlos Queiroz’s men put four goals past a helpless Flavio Roma to give the home side a dominant advantage. But, like in Moscow, Morientes headed in another vital away goal in the closing stages.
Most of the footballing world had deemed Monaco out. Not only had they only reached the semi-finals of this competition just once before, but most of their players were young and lacked the experience to progress on the biggest stage. What they didn’t consider was the fact that the club had virtually rebuilt itself just nine months earlier. Coming back was in its nature.
Read | Fernando Morientes and the haunting of Real Madrid
Raúl’s left-foot finish in the 36th minute fueled the critics and stoked the fires of doubt. A 22-year-old Patrice Evra, however, was reaping havoc down Real’s right side and it was his ball towards Morientes that brought about Monaco’s opener. His cross-field pass found Morientes in the area, whose knockdown fell to Giuly. The Frenchman didn’t need to break stride before volleying into the far corner.
The touch paper had been lit. On the stroke of half-time, Monaco were level on the night but remained a further two goals behind on aggregate. Three minutes after the restart, Evra sent in another deep cross that found Morientes, who cut out the middle-man and produced looping header that sailed past Iker Casillas to restore hope.
The home side pushed for a winner but remained wary of Madrid’s galactic threats of Zidane, Ronaldo and Figo. With just over 20 minutes to go, Hugo Ibarra sent a hopeful cross-shot towards goal, which Giuly flicked beyond Casillas with his heel. The beauty of the finish contrasted with the frantic fightback that his team were producing as the Stade Louis II was sent into raptures. Giuly, who would go on to play for Barcelona, sprinted away bare-chested to greet the roars of the crowd. Still, though, there was work to be done.
Soon after, Roberto Carlos whipped a dangerous cross towards Raúl, who nodded past Roma from close range. It was only as he was wheeling away, arms outstretched, that he saw the linesman’s flag. Replays showed the striker was onside when the ball was played, but Deschamps’ side heeded the warning that the disallowed goal brought. With Queiroz’s man piling forward, Adebayor had the chance to clinch progression but his effort crashed off the post.
Backs were against the wall for the final few minutes but a defence with an average age of 25 staved off an attack that boasted a total of four Ballon d’Ors. Scenes of ecstasy greeted Pierluigi Collina’s final whistle with the comeback complete and Real Madrid eliminated.
In reality, Monaco had no right to be in the Champions League semi-finalists. They had a rookie manager and they had spent nothing in the previous two transfer windows, while Morientes was the only member of the squad who had played in a Champions League semi-final before their tie with Chelsea in the last four. The Londoners had begun a new era under the ownership of Roman Abramovich and were looking to make their mark on the European stage. Claudio Ranieri was the man in charge but the way was already being paved for someone much bigger.
On the other side of the draw, Monaco’s group opponents Deportivo had pulled off an extraordinary comeback to knock out the holders Milan. They would face José Mourinho’s Porto in the other semi-final, leaving the tournament wide open in the absence of a so-called European giant.
Read | The warm Riazor evening when Deportivo tore AC Milan apart
Chelsea travelled to the principality for the first leg knowing that a positive result would put them on the verge of their first ever European Cup final. Rothen was chopped down by Mario Melchiot after 16 minutes and the resulting free-kick was met by Pršo’s forehead to give Monaco a deserved lead. Just five minutes later, Scott Parker found himself in acres of space in Monaco’s box and cut the ball back to Eidur Gudjohnsen. The Icelandic striker lost his footing as he swiped at the ball but managed to poke it to Hernán Crespo who finished from close range.
The Argentine met a Frank Lampard cross later in the half but could only divert his volley over the bar. After the break, Akis Zikos went down under Claude Makélélé’s challenge in Chelsea’s box but the referee waved away the Greek’s claim for a penalty. Makélélé responded with a playful slap on Zikos’s cheek before the Monaco man repaid the favour on the back of Makélélé’s head. The Frenchman’s overexaggerated reaction saw Zikos given a straight red.
Down to 10 men, the odds were stacked against Deschamps and his side but, never ones for giving up, Monaco fought back once more. Morientes struck with 12 minutes to go before Shabani Nonda squeezed in another five minutes later to give Monaco a commanding lead going into the second leg.
During the second leg, the Stamford Bridge crowd was rocking to the beat of Jasper Gronkjær and Lampard goals as the Blues clawed their way back into the tie, now holding what should’ve been a half-time aggregate lead. However, Rothen’s burst past Melchiot and chip over Carlo Cudicini was scrambled over the line by Ibarra to restore Monaco’s supremacy and send the home fans into silence. Lucas Bernardi and Morientes combined to put the French club out of sight midway through the second half, stretching their lead to 5-3 overall with Ranieri’s side needing three more goals to advance.
And so, nine months after being relegated to Ligue 2 and on the brink of financial ruin, Monaco became just the second French club in history to reach the final of Europe’s premier club competition. A masterclass from Mourinho and Porto, however, ended the dream in Gelsenkirchen as goals from Carlos Alberto, Deco and Dmitri Alenichev clinched Porto’s second Champions League title.
They say no one remembers losing finalists, however this unlikely run from a club on the verge of destruction will always be cherished as one of European football’s great fairytales, even though it didn’t have the ending the Monaco fans dreamt of. Still, the likes of Prso, Rothen, Nonda and Giuly remain ingrained into the fabric of the Stade Louis II club, as well as the Champions League during the mid-2000s.
By Billy Munday @BMunday08