Monaco changes tack to become a free-scoring French champion

(AP Photo/Claude Paris)

By JEROME PUGMIRE

AP Sports Writer

PARIS (AP) Monaco has won the French league title for the first time since 2000, breaking four seasons of Paris Saint-Germain dominance.

After finishing a whopping 31 points behind PSG in third place last season, Monaco completely turned things around to seal an eighth title overall.

On Wednesday, Monaco clinched the title with one match to spare after beating Saint-Etienne 2-0 at home.

Here are the key factors behind the turnaround:

Until this season, coach Leonardo Jardim's Monaco side was seen as well-organized but too conservative and more focused on defense than attack. Last season, Monaco scored only 57 league goals, while PSG scored 102. The season before, Monaco netted only 51 and conceded a league low 26. Great defending, sure, but Monaco also finished third. Jardim clearly needed to change things, and he did so radically.

With one match left, Monaco has scored 104 league goals - nearly as many as the past two seasons combined. That Jardim managed such a transformation without a season of transition underlines his coaching skill and the attacking class of his players. Jardim didn't sacrifice defense, either, with Monaco conceding a commendably low 29 in 37 matches.

After a measly five goals in 36 Premier League games for Manchester United and Chelsea - where he was on the bench for much of the time - few would have bet on Falcao leading Monaco to glory at the start of the season. However, buried beneath his frustration, he still had an unshakeable inner belief. Falcao was arguably Monaco's key player this season, certainly for his goals - 21 in just 29 league games - but also by setting an example. He thrived under the added responsibility of being captain, as someone to look up to for a very young side.

Falcao took teenage forward Kylian Mbappe under his wing, and the 18-year-old flourished as they scored 56 goals between them in all competitions, with Mbappe scoring 15 league goals. The 18-year-old Mbappe's ascension was nothing short of meteoric, and Monaco will do very well to keep him this summer, when some huge offers are expected.

Jardim's somewhat small squad was stretched by Monaco's campaigns on four fronts for much of the season. He had to contend with Falcao's occasionally relapses as the Colombian returned to full fitness - ruling him out of eight league games - and the demands of the Champions League and both domestic cups. Monaco reached the semifinals in Europe and in the French Cup and the final of the League Cup.

Crucially, Jardim managed to win important league games while resting key players - but ensuring he never left out more than two at any one time. This increased competition for places and improved Monaco's overall game. Valere Germain, an unheralded forward who came through the club's youth ranks 10 years ago, was a shining example of this. Germain was often called upon to lead more inexperienced players when Jardim rested his main players, and was made captain when Falcao was absent. It was a sign of faith and sent a symbolic message to the players: All the players are important here. Fittingly, Germain scored with the last kick of the game as Monaco sealed the title by beating Saint-Etienne 2-0 on Wednesday night.

When PSG routed Monaco 4-1 in the League Cup final on April 1, PSG's president Nasser Al-Khelaifi sounded confident it would signal a change in momentum. But if PSG's players hoped that such an admittedly poor result would dent their rivals' confidence, they misjudged Monaco badly. Instead, Jardim's players responded by winning the next six league games to stay in charge of the title race. Furthermore, they did so while beating Borussia Dortmund home and away in the Champions League quarterfinals. At a crucial point in the season, they showed they passed a serious test of character.

Updated May 17, 2017