Pitchside Europe

France counting on Monaco return

At a time when leading players have been departing the country in their droves, the French domestic game could do with a lift right now.

Watching the ailing champions, Montpellier, struggle to victory on Saturday at home to Sochaux, in front of swathes of empty seats and on a pitch utterly destroyed by the winter weather, was not the answer.

But at a time like this it is worth remembering that a very credible challenger to Paris Saint-Germain is set to emerge in the summer. To find them you need to go 350 kilometres east from Montpellier along the Mediterranean coast and down into Ligue 2. Yet the club in question have in the recent past been one of Europe's most glamorous, and they are set to become so again.

Bottom of Ligue 2 at the end of 2011, AS Monaco have recovered since then thanks to the investment of Russian billionaire Dimitri Rybolovlev, a man worth $9.5 billion according to Forbes magazine. Just over a year on from his takeover, the club from the principality are joint top of the table and on course for a return to Ligue 1.

Like PSG, they were expected to run away with their league this season but, again like PSG, that has not happened. Instead, Claudio Ranieri's side trail leaders Nantes - another famous club looking to return to former glories - on goal difference.

Since being humiliatingly knocked out of the French Cup on penalties by third-tier Bourg-Peronnas at the start of December, Monaco have won just twice in six league games. On Saturday they needed an 89th-minute equaliser from Brazilian defender Adriano to draw 2-2 with Guingamp at the Stade Louis II.

Nevertheless, they are four points clear of third-placed Caen, and have not been lower than third all season. It would still be an almighty surprise if they failed to win promotion now.

Rybolovlev's investment makes the return to Ligue 1 of Monaco, who won the last of their seven league titles in 2000, an exciting prospect for neutrals, but their would-be rivals do not necessarily agree. A PSG mk II, if you will, is a threat to the Lyons and Marseilles of this world, especially when there are only two automatic Champions League places on offer in Ligue 1.

Norwegian Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who recently left his post as executive director general, told L'Equipe earlier this season that Monaco "do not consider PSG to be a model for our development. At Monaco we form young players."

It is true that they might not be buying the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but they still spent 11 million euros on 18-year-old Argentine Lucas Ocampos from River Plate in the summer. He is "one of the best young players in the world," in the eyes of coach Claudio Ranieri, despite only scoring his first league goal for the club earlier this month.

Ranieri has spoken with excitement of the "very ambitious" project at the club, but there are doubts as to whether he will be kept on, whether he wins promotion or not. Indeed, there have even been rumours that Jose Mourinho - whose Porto side did of course beat Monaco in the 2004 Champions League final - could be approached. It seems unlikely, but then the quality of life and money on offer might be tempting.

And that financial power is a source of major concern for the clubs currently in Ligue 1. As Francois Hollande's socialist government seeks to push through legislation that would tax earnings over 1m euros at 75 per cent, the fear is that it will become impossible to compete with Rybolovlev's Monaco.

Independent Monaco is a tax haven, a status that already, in theory, gives the football club an advantage when it comes to signing players. Being exempt from the 75 per cent tax rule would make that advantage far greater.

Many of their rivals have demanded that AS Monaco agree to adhere to the same, French, tax system. "When you take part in a game, the rules need to be more or less the same for everyone," Marseille president Vincent Labrune told L'Equipe.

Ibrahimovic's 14m yearly net salary will in real terms cost PSG a great deal more than that, but the same contract would not cost Monaco much more than the net sum. It is an almighty imbalance, and is at the core of their rivals' concerns. But Ligue 1 still needs Monaco, and they can't come back soon enough.

Andrew Scott