Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiemoue Bakayoko have all left French titleholders Monaco, but Rony Lopes is leading a new group of championship hopefuls as he desperately seeks to silence the doubters.
Monaco made a stunning and rapid rise to the summit of Ligue 1 last season, dethroning French giants Paris Saint-Germain for their first league title in 17 years, while the Principality club sensationally reached the Champions League semi-finals with style and substance.
But the nucleus of their title-winning line-up has been ripped apart after being raided by PSG, Manchester City and Chelsea for teenage sensation Mbappe, playmaker Silva, star full-back Mendy and tough-tackling midfielder Bakayoko.
While doubts have emerged over Monaco’s ability to compete with Mbappe and €222million-rated Neymar at big-spending PSG, it has been business as usual for Leonardo Jardim’s side, who have not missed a beat on and off the pitch.
Monaco won their opening four matches of the Ligue 1 season before the international break and they managed to complete the signings of Keita Balde and Stevan Jovetic to add to the arrivals of Youri Tielemans and Terence Kongolo.
In an interview with Omnisport, Lopes – back from a loan spell at fellow French outfit Lille – said: “All eyes are on us. Some great players have left, indeed, however also new ones have joined in.
“Besides, the most important is still here: the structure, the staff, the culture is the same as last season. Everyone who loves football must enjoy watching Monaco play. Our culture is very offensive, but if you watch carefully we also know how to defend. Working as a block has been one of our biggest strengths and our coach has been decisive on the way we play.
“To those who doubt we can repeat or overcome last year’s results, we have only one thing to do: shut them up with victories.”
“Neymar joining Ligue 1 was important as he is a world star and more people will be interested in the French league,” he added. “Of course, to see a rival getting reinforcements like Neymar and Mbappe makes even more competition, but that is good. That’s what attracts audiences and interest in a competition: to see the best playing each other. In the end, in spite of more or less money spent, it’s 11 against 11 in every match. I’m sure it will be a long competitive season. For everyone.”
As Monaco attempt to rebuild and move on from Mbappe and others, it has been some familiar faces who have helped sustain the team’s title challenge and scintillating brand of attacking football.
Monaco have scored 14 goals in four league matches, thanks to Radamel Falcao’s league-best seven-goal tally, while France star Thomas Lemar remains a pivotal member after rejecting Arsenal and Liverpool.
And reigning champions Monaco are not lowering their ambitions in 2017-18, Lopes adding: “Our goal is to win titles. Monaco are the current French champions so there’s a title to defend, not to challenge.
“Our squad has been built based on the experience of players like Falcao and [Joao] Moutinho who are very important to the new and younger players such as myself, that look up to them and follow their example.
“Falcao is simply amazing. It’s difficult to imagine how he could become better, because he is already so good – shooting with both feet, heading, creating chances for himself and our team-mates, and even defending. He is a true leader, a great captain inside and outside the pitch. It’s a true honour to play alongside Falcao and work with him every day.
“We look to the domestic title as a difficult objective, as always, but possible as shown last year.”
Former Manchester City youth player Lopes is one of those youngsters who has benefited from a period of drastic change at Monaco.
Lopes returned to Stade Louis II after scoring four goals in 25 league appearances for Lille last term, and he has quickly established himself in Monaco’s starting XI following an impressive pre-season campaign.
The 21-year-old – who has been compared to Silva after replacing Mbappe in the starting XI – only made two league appearances before being sent out on loan, but he has already played four matches in 2017-18.
“The goal was always to return to my club. Monaco signed me in 2015 and since that day I felt part of the project,” Lopes said. “Last year in Lille was difficult because the club was undergoing a major renovation from top to bottom, with changes in coaches, staff and even presidents. In the end, the squad had to overcome many difficulties and we had to work harder than ever to keep LOSC on the first half of the table.
“This experience was positive for me, I feel that I grew a lot both physically and in terms of knowledge of the French league. When I came back to Monaco last June, my only goal was to rejoin the squad and show I’m ready to play at this level. The support I felt from both the coach, the staff and my mates showed they were counting on me too.”
Drawn in Group G of the Champions League alongside RB Leipzig, Porto and Besiktas, Lopes continued: “To play regularly at the highest level is naturally my biggest dream. Last season was great for the club and our objective is to keep the club on this streak. It will not be easy as our domestic competitors are investing strongly and our Champions League group is very homogeneous, but we are here to beat the odds once again.”
Lopes, who was born in Brazil but has represented Portugal through to under-21 level, hopes his performances for Monaco will earn a call-up to either nation ahead of the 2018 World Cup.
“In spite of those comparisons [to Silva], I really prefer to keep focus on my own style and improve my football on such a way that I can help Monaco,” Lopes finished off by saying. “I’m confident that I can aim to play the World Cup one day, but to do so I have to exceed myself in Monaco and that’s my only priority.
“My personal goal is to play as much as possible because I know that if I play that means I’m important to my club and that my mates and my coach trust me. If I can establish myself at Monaco, I will be closer to an international call-up, that’s for sure. So I will keep focused on every training and every match with AS Monaco, fighting for wins every week. Whatever comes up besides that will be a bonus. I will keep on aiming for the moon, but with my feet well on the ground.”
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