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Nov 8, 2006

The malaise at Monaco

Pride and prestige in Monaco are usually measured in the number of zeros on your bank balance, but at the Stade Louis II, Saturday's goalless stalemate with Nice has the principality's football club hanging its head in shame.

Champions League finalists just two years ago, Monaco are rooted to the bottom of Ligue 1 almost a third of the way into the season and appear to be going down faster than a shaken-not-stirred Martini in the hands of a fictional British spy in its illustrious casino.

Just two wins and eight defeats from twelve games is relegation form in anyone's book, and has already cost Laszlo Boloni, only appointed coach last summer, his barely-soiled monogrammed tracksuit at the club's training ground at La Turbie.

Boloni came to the club having worked miracles at Rennes, where the former Romania national coach's blend of tactical nous and notoriously disciplinarian manner brought the modest Brittany club an unexpected trio of top-ten finishes in successive seasons.

But Boloni's management style - so effective with the journeymen of Rennes - ruffled far too many feathers amongst the higher profiles on the south coast.

And after seeing the side slip to second bottom after a home defeat by Toulouse towards the end of October, Boloni was politely asked to cash in his chips, much to the apparent delight of many of the squad.

Boloni's failure was even more spectacular than that of his predecessor, Francesco Guidolin, who after sparkling success at Palermo arrived in 2005 as a permanent replacement for Didier Deschamps and was earmarked as the man to take the club places it had never been before.

Guidolin invited Italy strikers Christian Vieri and Marco di Vaio to sample Monaco's tax-free incomes and was rewarded with a near-forgotten destination - tenth place in Ligue 1, the club's worst finish in four seasons.

With his wanderlust severely curbed, Guidolin shuffled back to the familiar surroundings of Sicily and Monaco turned to the obscure Laurent Banide, their fourth coach since Deschamps left.

The 38-year-old's father, Gerard, twice experienced the Monaco hot-seat himself, and after serving an apprenticeship of sorts as assistant to Guidolin and Boloni, the club's hierarchy - which includes ex-West Ham, Portsmouth and Blackburn forward Marc Keller - appear to be hoping Laurent can provide a touch of homespun magic to revive their fortunes.

For the moment however, Banide is proving no do-it-yourself David Copperfield.

Banide's first match in charge saw bottom side Nantes - another struggling giant - leapfrog his men with a 1-0 win and consign the five-time Ligue 1 champions to what the French call the 'red lantern' position of rock bottom.

The point earned at home to fellow strugglers Nice represented an improvement of sorts, but while Banide's attachment to the club is without question, his lack of experience at the sharp end of the French game will surely - sooner or later - prove a stumbling block.

But given Guidolin's success back at Palermo this season, Boloni's record with Rennes and the absence of the usual phenomenon of a change in leadership sparking a change in fortunes, it is the players themselves who provide the most cause for concern.

The squad assembled for the current campaign has - on paper - little to envy that with which Arsene Wenger cut his top-fight managerial teeth by taking Monaco to a Ligue 1 title in 1988 or the Fernando Morientes-inspired team defeated by Jose Mourinho's Porto in the 2004 Champions League final.

Admittedly, commanding central defender Sebastien Squillaci - part of that 2004 side - was lost to Lyon this summer, while raiding full-back Douglas Maicon was poached by Inter, but it appeared the club's spending spree had more than compensated.

Following in a tradition that includes Mark Hateley, giant Czech Jan Koller was brought in to replace Vieri as the 'big man' up front, Kolo Touré's highly-rated brother Yaya was snatched from under the noses of the Continent's big boys, promising French youngster Jeremy Menez was lured from Sochaux while Di Vaio penned a permanent deal.

Add to that fringe Italy squad member Flavio Roma in goal, France defender and club captain Gael Givet, Czech international midfielder Jaroslav Plasil and Argentine grafter Lucas Bernardi, the means at Banide's disposal are potent.

Lady Luck, as she has no doubt done to countless casino-goers, has played her part with malevolence in the team's troubles.

Having barely played last season due to a serious knee injury and having to be stretchered off during the World Cup, Koller's lack of sharpness - which meant a return of just one goal in ten games - was understandable.

And now the former Borussia Dortmund forward will have to content himself with picking and choosing his spot on matchdays in the sparsely-populated Stade Louis II as he nurses a thigh injury until the New Year.

Koller's partner in attack, Di Vaio, can lay only tenuous claim to the title of 'striker' having himself found the net just once in a miserable run of form, epitomised when he incredibly missed chance upon chance in the Toulouse game which signalled the end for Boloni.

And though they have lost eight times, only once - again against Toulouse - have they succumbed by more than a solitary goal.

Even off the pitch things are going pear-shaped, with the club one of several Ligue 1 teams falling foul of French gaming legislation and having to remove their principal sponsor - ironically an on-line betting site - from their shirts.

But it seems in the millionaires' playground where royalty, celebrities, highly-paid sports stars and David Coulthard rub Prada-shrouded shoulders with alarming regularity while doing their shopping, the millionaires chosen to represent them on the football field are squabbling over whose turn it is next on the swings.

Like a haunted castle that has been exorcised, the spirit is simply not there.

The display against Nantes was shamefully lacking in fight, the combative Givet summing it up by branding the display 'catastrophic,' before adding, tellingly: 'If we don't play well, then we have to show pride and determination. That's far from the case at the moment.'

With south-coast bragging rights at stake against Nice, club president Michel 'Vidal Sassoon' Pastor brought the squad together prior to the derby for a Monaco version of the 'hairdryer treatment.'

Even the club's notoriously docile supporters, who include Prince Albert of Monaco, have been provoked by the perilous state of affairs.

A group of hardcore fans, and there are not many given average attendances which would shame most sides in the lowest reaches of English professional football, barracked players as they quit the training ground last week.

They were rewarded with a point against Nice.

But it was a fortuitous point at that, earned not without a telling contribution from Roma, whose award of a six out of ten by France Football magazine - a mark given with the same frequency as a giant panda feels a bit frisky - tells its own story.

Captain Givet has exhorted his colleagues to greater efforts numerous times in the French sporting press, only last week classifying the need for urgency as a 'red alert,' his repeated calls-to-arms all the more significant as the bearded defender is habitually given to public pronouncements as often as he is called upon to endorse Gillette products.

Monaco's visit to fourth-off-bottom Troyes - two points further up the table - on Sunday is already shaping up as the side's third relegation 'six-pointer' in three games.

Victory could signal the start of a Monte Carlo rally, but if Banide's men make it a hat-trick of winless games, then all bets could well be off concerning Monaco's survival in French football's top flight.

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