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Champions League: Slaying Giants

In 2004, a band of upstarts from a tiny principality on the coast of France shocked the footballing world. AS Monaco, coached by the inexperienced but ambitious Didier Deschamps and featuring Fernando Morientes, Ludovic Giuly, and a young Patrice Evra, reached the brink of Champions League glory.

While the club fell to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the final, Les Rouge et Blanc defeated Real Madrid and Chelsea on their way to becoming the first Champions League finalists who were not members of the G-14—the group founded in 2000 by 14 of Europe’s leading teams and expanded to 18 in 2002 before disbanding in January, 2008 at the behest of UEFA president Michel Platini. It was considered a watershed moment, perhaps ushering in an era of successful smaller sides.

However, the revolution never came to fruition. In the six years since, no similarly small club has matched Monaco’s heroics. The Champions League has continued to be a battleground for the game’s superpowers—Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Chelsea.

But this season, the times could be a-changin’. Thanks to a similar mix of smart coaching, a talented, homegrown core, and a couple key recruits, both Fiorentina and Bordeaux have their sights set on upending the status quo in the Champions League. Whether they can actually pull it off is still debateable, but they certainly look capable of outflanking more than a few of their richer rivals. Monaco may stand alone on the shoulders of giants no more.

Football has always been divided into the Haves and the Have-nots. Or at least the Have-Less’s. In the Champions League, this creates a déjà vu monotony of sorts, where the same squads compete year in and year out for the trophy.

This season has a different feel. Of the 16 teams to reach this year’s Champions League knockout stage, which kicks off this month, only 10 were traditional heavyweights, the lowest total since the upside-down 2003/04 tournament. (Chelsea, though never a G-14 member, are being grouped in the G-14/heavyweight category for the purposes of this article.

Oligarch millions have a way of earning an estimable reputation, if not respect.) Bordeaux, Fiorentina, and Sevilla, won their groups with ease, and CSKA Moscow, Stuttgart, and Olympiakos all advanced as second-placed finishers. Meanwhile usual stalwarts Juventus, Liverpool, and Marseille crashed out and are now rather sheepishly contending in the Europa League.

Things actually could have been much worse for the big boys. In Group F, for instance, upstart Rubin Kazan used a significant home-field advantage and a defence as impenetrable as a Russian blizzard—one goal allowed in three home matches—to put a scare into Barcelona and Inter Milan before ultimately falling short on the last matchday. Romanian side Unirea Urziceni made life interesting in Group G.

But the question remains: Is this the year an underdog matches, or even exceeds, Monaco’s feat?

In reality, just reaching the final four would be impressive. In the six years since Monaco’s Cinderella run, exactly one non-G-14 club, Villarreal, has made the semi-finals. In 2006, the Yellow Submarine came within one match of the final before bowing out to Arsenal.

In fact, with the exception of 2004—when Deportivo La Coruna joined Monaco in the final four—the only other small side to advance beyond the quarter-finals was Leeds United in 2001. Put another way, in the decade since the G-14 was founded, only four of the 40 semi-finalists were non-G-14 members.

So what would it take for Bordeaux or Fiorentina, or even Sevilla or Stuttgart to reach the final and put themselves in position to pull off an upset for the ages? Monaco presents a model for underdog success.

Jerome de Bontin, an AS Monaco board member in 2004 who later became club president, points to the coach first. In 2001, Monaco’s long-time president Jean-Louis Campora made the decision not to renew Claude Puel’s contract despite the fact that he had won the Ligue 1 title in 2000—incidentally, ASM’s last major triumph. Instead, Campora installed Deschamps, the World Cup-winning French midfielder who went straight from the pitch to the sidelines. It was a bold but vital move, De Bontin says, particularly after ASM finished 15th in 2002.

“The players looked up to the figurehead that Didier Deschamps represented,” de Bontin says. “Independently of his abilities as a coach, there came a young man who had won the World Cup, who had captained the French team to a World Cup championship and a European championship, who had been regarded as a leader of that national team. And who was regarded, at least at that time by those young players, as a figurehead of soccer in France.”

A core of talented young players was then developing at the club: Evra, Sébastien Squillaci, Shabani Nonda, Gaël Givet. From the moment he was hired, Deschamps had their respect and attention. And in 2003/04, they came good, as the Monegasques finished runners-up to French juggernaut Lyon.

The joy of coming second—and earning a Champions League berth—was quickly tempered by the fact that Monaco’s management knew the team wasn’t quite talented enough to compete seriously in Europe the following year. They needed a difference-maker. “The decision was made to try to find one or two key recruits to make the team more competitive,” de Bontin recalls.

They settled on out-of-favour Real Madrid striker Fernando Morientes, who arrived in the principality on a season-long loan. Already a three-time winner of the Champions League, the then-27-year-old went on to tally nine goals in the Champions League, plus ten in domestic play. For his efforts, he was named 2004 European Striker of the Year.

Deschamps formed the squad in his image, enforcing a level of selflessness rarely seen in pro sports. In fact, Ludovic Giuly, the former captain who later won a Champions League medal with Barcelona, is still amazed with the level of individual sacrifice made by his team-mates.

“Deschamps expelled a number or players, regardless of their talent and qualities, whose presence he felt would be detrimental to the spirit and unity of the group,” the captain tells Goal.com. “Every member of the group felt for, and lived for, the group. There was no jealousy or envy between the starters and those who only played occasionally.”

“The harmony and camaraderie that you can build will generate this special energy that may propel you to the top,” de Bontin says.

The blueprint for success, then, was simple: an ambitious, well-respected coach, a core of up-and-coming talent, and a couple key veterans. It could just as easily be a description of Bordeaux or Fiorentina.

On paper, Bordeaux seem the odds-on favourite to make waves. Despite this being his first and only managerial job, the fiery Laurent Blanc—a teammate of Deschamps on the '98 World Cup team—has carefully built a Ligue 1 powerhouse, one that last year broke Lyon’s seven-year stranglehold on the trophy.

Starlets like Marouane Chamakh and Beniot Tremoulinas provide the spice to flavour a base of steady veterans including Alou Diarra, Mathieu Chalme, and Jaroslav Plasil—a member of Monaco in 2004, by the way. The final ingredient is the brilliant Yoann Gourcuff, purchased outright from AC Milan for around 15 million last summer after a season-long loan. The recipe is proving delicious both in the Champions League and domestically, as Bordeaux is once again in the class of Ligue 1.

Fiorentina manager Cesare Prandelli has more coaching experience than Blanc, but the effect is the same. The three-time Scudetto-winner is getting integral contributions from the likes of veterans Sebastien Frey, Dario Dainelli, and Martin Jorgenson, punctuated by the youthful energy of stars-in-the-making Stevan Jovetic and Juan Manuel Vargas, both acquired in 2008.

These two colts arrived at the same time as the crown jewel, striker Alberto Gilardino. A Champions League winner with AC Milan in 2007, Gila play the same role as Morientes did for Monaco in 2004. So far, Gila has held up his end of the bargain, scoring three goals in the five group matches he was fit for.

Building up a small team to compete with the big boys, however, comes with a cost. A player like Morientes, Gilardino, or Gourcuff doesn’t come cheap, de Bontin notes, especially for a club lacking the bottomless wallet of a Russian oligarch or a Middle Eastern emir. “History has shown that the real risk is to try to put together a competitive team at high cost,” De Bontin says. “You carry the financial burden for the debt that was made for years to come.”

In essence, the Ligue 1 side sacrificed the future for the present, just as Leeds did in the early 2000s, and Nottingham Forest did in the late ’70s/early ’80s. While ASM managed to finish third during the 2004/05 campaign, it hasn’t finished higher than 9th in the four years since and prospects for this season look grim as well.

Would De Bontin pursue the same path again? “No,” he says. “It’s not always about money. It’s about being able to generate the same competitiveness with your players year after year.” He cites Arsenal—managed, coincidentally or not, by former Monaco boss Arsene Wenger—as a prime example of a team that consistently competes without depleting resources.

De Bontin could just as easily have given the nod to Fiorentina. The Viola have the makings of an underdog ready to bite—without going bankrupting in the process. They might not boast the depth to compete for both the Serie A and Champions League titles, but the club consistently finish in the Serie A’s top four and keep their finances in check with timely sales of players such as Felipe Melo.

Prendelli’s comments about the unity of his club and their ability to overcome better-financed opponents echo De Bontin’s. “We can find solutions to whatever we are asked to face,” he said after the Viola defeated Liverpool in the group stage.

But the group stages are over. There is no more margin for error now. Only time will tell if Fiorentina or Bordeaux can tip the balance of power in European football when the Champions League knockout stages begin this month.

Regardless, one thing is clear: By following Monaco's example while updating the blueprint to allow for repeat success, both clubs are ensuring that Europe’s heavyweight belt isn’t always guaranteed to go to one of Europe’s heavyweight clubs.

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