Monaco's youngsters, with the help of an aging star, surge into Champions League semifinals

Mbappe strikes a pose after scoring <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/monaco/" data-ylk="slk:Monaco">Monaco</a>’s opening goal. (Getty Images)
Mbappe strikes a pose after scoring Monaco’s opening goal. (Getty Images)

The best young team in Europe is moving on to the Champions League semifinals in style, and if Wednesday was any indication, it might not stop there.

Monaco, the high-flying Ligue 1 leaders, cruised past Borussia Dortmund, 3-1 on the day and 6-3 on aggregate, to book a place in the last four and a date with either Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or Juventus. And while they’re small in stature compared to those three European giants, they’ll be a threat to any one of them.

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The French side put away Dortmund with a barnstorming opening 20 minutes and goals from 18-year-old wunderkind Kylian Mbappé and 31-year-old Radamel Falcao. The former was one of six players 22 years old or younger in the starting 11. Another one of the six, defensive midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko, broke up countless Dortmund attacks, especially in the first half, and was arguably the man of the match.

Both Mbappé and Falcao, however, are emblems of how the club and the current squad have been built. Monaco’s billionaire owner splashed cash on three big stars — two of whom played Wednesday — in 2013. But the club reassessed its recruitment policy soon thereafter and decided to build from the ground up. It refocused on acquiring and developing young talent.

This season’s Champions League run, which included a group win and a round of 16 takedown of Manchester City, is in a way the culmination of the rebuild. But the run also wouldn’t have been possible without the rebirth of Falcao.

Monaco sweated out a good portion of the second half after Dortmund’s Marco Reus pulled a goal back soon after halftime, but Valere Germain, a hometown hero who’s been with the club since his time as a youth player, put the tie to bed late on.

But it was the first quarter of the match that showed the world what this Monaco team is about. Benjamin Mendy broke open the game with a bursting run from his left back position through the heart of Dortmund’s midfield. He skipped inside Erik Durm, and his pile driver of a shot stung the palms of Roman Burki. The Dortmund goalkeeper couldn’t direct the rebound wide, though, and Mbappé finished it expertly.

Mendy is one of the brightest young fullbacks in Europe. The 22-year-old France international has a lethal left foot but usually produces killer crosses. This time, he produced a Monaco goal with a thumping shot on goal.

Dortmund, which lost the first leg 3-2 after controversially being forced to play 24 hours after its team bus was bombed by terrorists, responded reasonably well to going further behind. Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic nearly gave supporters a heart attack when he tried some trickery under pressure from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Subasic and Monaco barely escaped the situation unscathed.

Dortmund produced a flowing attack after 10 minutes that elicited the visitors’ first shot on target. Aubameyang played Durm into space on the right side of Monaco’s box, and Durm’s cross connected with Reus, but Reus’ well-hit shot found the grateful gloves of Subasic.

With Dortmund needing at least three goals to advance, a free-flowing game yielded chances on both ends. Nuri Sahin struck the upright with a curling free kick on one end. On the other, though, a delicate cross from Mendy gave Bernardo Silva a free header from eight yards. The Portuguese playmaker directed it right at Burki, but minutes later, Dortmund wouldn’t be so fortunate.

Falcao took advantage of a flat-footed Mathias Ginter, darted across the face of the Dortmund defender and turned home Thomas Lemar’s wonderfully weighted cross.

The second goal didn’t drastically change Dortmund’s task. It still needed three goals before the end of the 90 minutes. But manager Thomas Tuchel recognized that his 3-4-2-1 system wasn’t working. Durm was getting overrun on the right, and the double midfield pivot of Julian Weigl and Sahin couldn’t exert any control over the game. Both are slick passers and astute readers of the game, but neither could get on the ball.

So Tuchel acted, and replaced Durm with teenage winger Ousmane Dembele. The corresponding formation change was to a 4-2-3-1 with Dembele, Shinji Kagawa and Reus the attacking three.

Monaco pulled back their defensive line of confrontation late in the first half, and Dortmund finally settled into the match. Its best opportunity came after a neat combination between Reus and Kagawa at the top of the box. Kagawa spotted Raphael Guerreiro in tons of space on the left, but Guerreiro couldn’t seem to decide between cross and shot. His cross-shot was cleared by the Monaco defense. The teams went into halftime with the hosts leading the tie 5-2 on aggregate and 3-0 on away goals.

Tuchel made another change at halftime, inserting Marcel Schmeltzer for Sahin and pushing Guerreiro into Sahin’s central midfield position. The substitution made sense — the Sahin-Weigl pairing lacked the athleticism to deal with Monaco’s robust attack — but also prompted the question of why Tuchel decided to start the game as he did. Had he opened with Guerreiro in midfield alongside Weigl and Dembele as part of the attack, the trajectory of the second leg might have been different.

It was the first-half substitution that paid dividends for Dortmund immediately after the break. Dembele took on two Monaco players down the right, turned Mendy inside-out, and flicked a seemingly awkward left-footed cross into the box as he tumbled over the byline. Reus met the cut-back just in front of the penalty spot with authority, and just like that, Dortmund were back in the tie.

The pattern of the game soon evolved into what many thought it would be from the start: Dortmund possessing and probing, Monaco counter-attacking. The pendulum of the match swung clearly in Dortmund’s favor, with Dembele single-handedly troubling Monaco down the right and Reus, Kagawa, Guerreiro and Weigl combining in midfield and down the left.

Monaco did use the large expanses of field in behind Dortmund’s defense to decent effect. Falcao and Mbappé both had glorious chances for a third. The veteran tried to chip Burki when he found himself one-on-one with the keeper, but he put too much weight behind his clever attempt. The teenager dragged his shot just past the far post, though Burki seemed to get fingertips to the ball to help it wide.

Tuchel inserted American star Christian Pulisic into the fray on 72 minutes with two goals still required just to send the match to extra time. But it was a Monaco substitute who made a decisive impact. Germain scored moments after entering the game to secure Monaco’s spot in the semifinals.

In Wednesday’s other semifinal, Juventus saw off Barcelona. The draw for the semis will take place on Friday at 6 a.m. ET.

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