Hello. What a match we have in store today! If you’re not excited about this one, then you haven’t been paying attention. In the red corner we have Monaco, who for the sake of argument we’re going to bill as the most exciting young attacking team that Europe has seen since Ajax’s Class of ‘95; and in the black-and-white corner we have Juventus, who have some nifty attackers of their own but also the canniest and most tenacious defence in the whole world, backed by a goalkeeper who’s been thwarting ace strikers since the dawn of time. Truly, this is a tie that needs no hype. But what the hell, let’s give it socks.
Let’s give it stats, too. Monaco are goal-crazy: in France, they are scoring at a rate unmatched by any club since the Racing Paris side of 1960 and they have been similarly devastating on the continent, smashing four goals past the Premier League’s stingiest defence, Tottenham Hotspur, before outscoring some of Europe’s most devout attackers by hitting eight past Manchester City and six past Borussia Dortmund. That’s good going for a team that were on the brink of being eliminated by Fenerbahce in the preliminary round after losing 2-1 in Turkey. But they overturned that in the second leg thanks to a 3-1 win in which Radomel Falcao signalled his renaissance. Kylian Mbappé, meanwhile, had not even been born at that stage. But he made his first-team debut a week later – he really is a prodigy – and since then he has celebrated his 18th birthday and formed a beautiful and imaginatively destructive partnership with Falcao. In an era in which anyone who has performed more than 10 keepie-uppies has a popular YouTube reel entitled The New Messi, no one saw Mbappé coming. In fact, it’s a fine trick that Monaco have pulled, taking Europe almost entirely by surprise. Not only had no one heard of Mbappé and always believed that Leonardo Jardim was an essentially defensive coach, which he was, but few people outside France were familiar with swashbucklers such as Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibé, Thomas Lemar and Tiemoué Bakayoko. The likes of Fabinho and Bernardo Silva were on some radars but not many. Now all are mainstream sensations. There’s talk of this team being picked apart by even richer predators once the summer comes, so this might be their one shot at glory. The Ligue 1 title is almost in the bag, will they become the first French club do the domestic-and-European double?
Real Madrid may have something to say about that, but only if they need to. Juventus may spare them the trouble. Juve have never lost a two-legged tie to a French club and, indeed, dumped Monaco out in the semi-finals in 1998. Gianluigi Buffon was still at Parma back then, joining Juve just after the turn of the century, since when he has won the World Cup and enough domestic titles to not notice the ones that were taken away because of institutionalised cheating at his (now-reformed) club. But he has never won the Champions League. Twice he has lost in the final. Will this be the year that one of the best goalkeepers of all time finally gets his hands on the biggest prize in European club football? Or will he have to end his career without winning the Champions League, like Mike Hooper and Massimo Taibi? With a defence featuring the likes of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci (bad choice of words: there is no one like Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci), a strikeforce featuring Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain and a midfield that is formidable even without the suspended Sami Khedira, Buffon will fancy his chances of getting a foot in the final during this first leg. As for the rest of us, let’s just sit back and enjoy. This one’s about to go off!