Not since Marseille lifted the European Cup 24 years ago has a French team had the game’s best club side. It has been a long, long wait. But that could soon change.
Following Manchester City’s stunning comeback to take a two-goal advantange to Monte Carlo for the return leg of this absorbing Champions League last-16 encounter, it may not be this season for Monaco, and Paris Saint-Germain may have greater hope.
Monaco just could not cope with the pressure from the hosts in a finale that was fabulous as well as frenetic.
But here is a team gifted and destined for glory.
Much has been said and written about their goal-scoring exploits in this campaign and they way they teased and tormented the Manchester City defence showed the praise was every bit justified. They are lightning on the counter and lethal.
It was summed up by the dazzling display of Kylian Mbappe who belied his 18 years with brilliance. There have been comparisons with Thierry Henry, but this evoked memories of Wayne Rooney when he first burst onto the scene as a teenager – and dare I say it, the Brazilian striker Ronaldo. It was that calmness and clinical approach.
Awesome, incredible game but the third goal by Falcao is disgusting!
Blessed with balance, skill and speed, he was fearsome in the front-line. With experience and faith from his coach, he will only get better.
That is something Raheem Sterling has clearly benefitted from since Pep Guardiola’s arrival. It has been the making of him as he has taken his game to another level after battles with inconsistency, belief and a price tag that seemed to weigh him down.
No longer isolated on the wing, as part of a front three and a regular starter, he has been tremendous. With confidence, his class has shone through and, along with summer signing Leroy Sane, City have the S-factor.
This exciting trio are world-beaters in the making.
But, in a game where it was all about the attacks, the young guns should not claim all the attention, though, as two ‘veterans’ proved their worth.
His awful penalty miss aside, Radamel Falcao turned back the clock to the time he was arguably the world’s best striker. The chip for his second goal was simply sublime and a riposte to those who witnessed his failings in Manchester when he was on loan at United.
Great strikers never lose that ability – as also proved by Sergio Aguero. Booked for a dive when it seemed he should have had a penalty and Monaco keeper Danijel Subasic shown a red card, he did not hide and instead displayed the hunger for which he has attained hero status at the Etihad. With constant questions about his future at City, Aguero revelled in being the main man again.
What he and City also showed was heart. Twice behind they refused to give up, or give in, to gain a momentous win on a night to remember for the fans. One of the great Champions League games.
Yet with all the missed opportunities and defensive failings, this tie is not over.
Monaco will have to gamble in the return, but it won’t be Monte Carlo and bust. On this evidence, they are heading for greater riches in the long term.
The sporting world sat back in awe last month, events at the Australian Open catching the attention of even the most casual of tennis fans. Rodger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Venus and Serena Williams all reached the finals of the tournament, rolling back the years and giving themselves a chance to add to their incredible collections of Grand Slam titles.
Much to the delight of watching fans, the Swiss master and the younger of the two American sisters lifted the respective trophies and in doing so once again defeated their closest rival for the title of greatest player of their generation.
When Wednesday evening’s Champions League clash between FC Porto and Juventus gets underway, two genuine greats of a different game will go head-to- head yet again at the Estádio do Dragão.
Debate has raged for well over a decade about whether Iker Casillas or Gigi Buffon can claim to be the best of the best, and over the years the legendary goalkeepers have faced off against each other almost as often as their tennis counterparts.
As a result their careers are inextricably linked, with the two clearly aware of the connection they share. “When Buffon retires, I will too,” Casillas told La Gazzetta dello Sport back in June, a statement that hinted not only at the bond they have built between them but also acknowledging that for both men, the end is drawing close.
The Italian was the first to break through, catapulted into the spotlight when he was thrown into action at the age of just 17 for Parma, his 1995 debut seeing him keep a clean sheet against the all-conquering AC Milan at San Siro. Six years later he would join Juventus for a fee that remains the highest ever paid for a goalkeeper, yet even that looks like a bargain given the longevity and sheer brilliance he has displayed ever since.
Casillas also exploded onto the scene as a teenager for Real Madrid, becoming the youngest starting goalkeeper ever to win the Champions League as a 19-year- old in the 1999-00 campaign.
He would clinch a second triumph in the same competition two seasons later, and just 12 months after that the Spanish youngster would face off against Buffon in a big match for the very first time.
Having dispatched Barcelona in the quarter-finals, Juventus were drawn against Real Madrid in the last four of the 2002-03 Champions League and it would provide both goalkeepers a chance to prove their worth. A free kick from Zinedine Zidane – who just a few months earlier had left the Turin giants for the Spanish capital – drew the first great save, Buffon denying the former Juve idol with a brilliant one-handed stop.
A number of routine saves would follow as the visitors left the Bernabeu trailing 2-1, but Casillas needed to be at his best early in the second leg to deny Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved.
Juve eventually took the lead, only to then concede a penalty. Determined to progress, Buffon denied Luis Figo with a brilliant diving effort, before Nedved promptly bagging a winner – darting over the running track to celebrate under the jubilant Curva Sud.
While the two clubs were drawn together in earlier stages of the competition over the following years, the next time they faced off in a showpiece clash it was Casillas who stood tallest. The Euro 2008 quarter-final pitted Italy against Spain and, despite Buffon keeping out Daniel Güiza’s spot-kick in the shootout, his opposite number denied both Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale to eliminate the Azzurri.
That win would spark a golden era for Spain, who won that competition and then the World Cup two years later before setting up a rematch against Italy in the final of Euro 2012. This time La Furia Roja did not need penalties, sweeping their opponents aside in a comprehensive 4-0 victory.
Three years later, another Champions League semi-final saw another victory for Buffon, and by the time their national teams next went head-to- head, Casillas was no longer involved.
A 2-0 Azzurri win at Euro 2016 came with David De Gea in goal and with his predecessor now representing Porto at club level, their latest meeting will have a very strange air. They have still enjoyed fine campaigns until this point, a 35-year- old Casillas performing much better in his second season at the Dragão than he did last term, while Buffon continues to deliver miracles for Juventus even after his 39th birthday.
A meeting between them in 2017 seemed highly unlikely but football, like tennis, retains the capacity to surprise even the most hardened of fans. When Casillas and Gigi Buffon share their customary embrace either before kick off or shortly after the final whistle, it will be difficult not to smile as two of the greatest ever write another chapter in history of the game together.