Open season kicks off in Ligue 1
It is unusual that a widely-tipped title favorite should be a club that has won the championship just twice in its history, but Paris Saint-Germain is no normal club – and this is no regular Ligue 1 season.
Assumptions for the new campaign have been turned upside-down following Qatar Sports Investment’s (QSI) stunning takeover of the capital club – and its instant willingness to spend heavily to reinforce the squad. The last time PSG was champion, in 1994, the team had been built on the first flush of cash from owner Canal Plus, which brought in players like George Weah, Alain Roche and David Ginola.
“I lived this as a player,” said coach Antoine Kombouare, another stalwart of the 1994 side, this week. Kombouare also empathized with then-coach Artur Jorge’s problem in building a team from this galaxy of stars – a problem that today’s boss is quickly becoming familiar with.
Quite apart from the challenge of getting a new set of players to gel from the get-go, PSG’s main challenge is the high standard of competition in what has become a wonderfully open league since the collapse of Lyon’s hegemony, which was finished by Laurent Blanc’s zesty Bordeaux side in 2009. Even if Bordeaux’s dominance fell apart pretty quickly – and with the coffers at the Stade Abbe-Deschamps bare, even new coach Francis Gillot is unlikely to mastermind a championship challenge any time soon – it opened up a whole new world of possibility in French domestic soccer.
Benoit Pedretti has been brought in by champion Lille to replace Yohan Cabaye. (Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Imagining Lille becoming champion, for example, was unthinkable in the midst of Lyon’s seven successive titles, between 2002 and 2008. The bizarre 5-4 defeat to cup winner (and 2010 champion) Marseille in the Trophee des Champions, the season curtain-raiser held in the oppressive heat of Tangiers, should be seen as a red herring. Lille’s effective, unfussy mercato has plugged some gaps, with the experienced Marko Basa and Benoit Pedretti replacing the departed Adil Rami and Yohan Cabaye, and it retains a young, lean and hungry squad. Guaranteed Champions League football also allowed Lille to beat PSG to exciting young France forward Dimitri Payet, who will fill the void left by Arsenal-bound Gervinho.
That the fanfare is elsewhere will suit the reigning champion – and its superb coach Rudi Garcia – down to the ground. Garcia’s construction of a ‘mini-Barcelona’ since his arrival in the north in 2008 means previously-unfashionable Lille is the envy of its competitors. Giants Marseille and Lyon have both disappointed fans with their own brands of football in recent times.
Frequently criticized last season for the circumspection of OM’s game (even by one of its own players, Benoit Cheyrou), coach Didier Deschamps is famously stubborn and shows no sign of relenting. Three of his four major signings have been defensively-minded; France captain Alou Diarra from Bordeaux, Monaco’s Nicolas Nkoulou and Lorient left-back Jeremy Morel. After the saga of top scorer Mamadou Niang’s late departure to Fenerbahce last summer, Deschamps is plagued by doubts over the future of playmaker Lucho Gonzalez. If Lucho did leave Marseille in the lurch, the underrated midfield schemer Morgan Amalfitano, also signed from Lorient, could have an unexpected opportunity to fill the gap, though pocket rocket Mathieu Valbuena (Ligue 1’s shortest player at 1m 67) could fire OM’s attacking potency was he permanently switched to the center.
Having returned to the management structure that served it so well during the run of seven successive league championship crowns, Lyon is embracing a new era of austerity. General manager Claude Puel has been shown the door after three years of gluttonous spending and no trophies, to be replaced by academy director (and former Arsenal player) Remi Garde as coach. His first senior coaching job promises to be a tough one; with the club’s failure to sell big earners such as Kim Kallstrom, Aly Cissokho and Michel Bastos, there is little cash to spend, though the core of a fine squad remains.
However, Garde’s appointment does appear to have lifted a dark cloud from above the dressing room after Puel’s aloofness. The coach has coaxed some encouraging pre-season form from a newly-established 4-4-2 formation, and if Yoann Gourcuff can recover his 2009 form playing at the midfield diamond’s tip (though he is currently recuperating from an ankle operation), the lack of transfer spend will be academic and OL will be a title contender.
The worry for Sochaux fans is that their own club is moving in the opposite direction. Coach Mehmet Bazdarevic was responsible for one of the dullest Ligue 1 sides in recent memory at Grenoble, and has a lot to prove if he is to retain the élan that made the side from Montbeliard so watchable last season. The departure of top scorer Brown Ideye to Dynamo Kiev is a blow, but the retention of midfield stars Marvin Martin and Ryad Boudebouz is a real boost for Bazdarevic, even if the Bosnian will struggle to match last season’s fifth place.
Yann M’Vila has stayed loyal to Rennes ahead of the new season. (Vincent Michel/AP Photo)
Rennes has one of Ligue 1’s finest coaches in the bullish Frederic Antonetti, and he has also been boosted by hanging onto his stars – notably the excellent Yann M’Vila, now a France first-pick, and rugged centre-back Kader Mangane. The club’s outstanding youth policy always provides a strong base for the side, and if a newly-signed center-forward can succeed where the likes of Ismael Bangoura have failed before, a top five spot beckons.
The prospective relegation scrap has plenty of candidates, with money scarce in the bottom half of the table.
Auxerre was seriously compromised by its surprise Champions League qualification last season, and since escaping relegation has lost coach Jean Fernandez, captain Pedretti, playmaker Valter Birsa and star forward Ireneusz Jelen. If Lyon succeeds in its current attempts to tempt away defensive midfield lynchpin Delvin N’Dinga, Laurent Fournier’s job in succeeding Fernandez could be made even harder. Valenciennes have already lost a pair of its flagship names; coach Philippe Montanier left to join Real Sociedad and captain Milan Bisevac joined former boss Kombouare at PSG. Keeping top-flight soccer at its ultra-modern new Stade du Hainault will be a challenge.
Of the promoted clubs, Ligue 2 champion Evian-Thonon-Gaillard have garnered the most attention, mainly due to its high-profile backers – including France World Cup-winning defender Bixente Lizarazu, who recently made good on his promise to run naked through the corridors of Evian’s Hotel Royal if ETG was promoted. The experience garnered with the arrivals of Sidney Govou, Fabrice Ehret and Jerome Leroy, one of Ligue 1’s finest playmakers over the last decade, is impressive, but the suspicion that Evian lacks a little punch up front is hard to escape.
The same goes double for Dijon, promoted to the top flight for the first time. This modest club is a curio, especially with the presence of Lesly Malouda and Freddy Drogba (the brothers of Chelsea pair Florent and Didier respectively) in the squad. Yet as soon as promotion was clinched, it was announced that the club’s 23-goal (a season high for the division) top-scorer Sebastian Ribas would join Genoa.
Ajaccio’s promotion was in doubt for a long time due to the poor condition of the Stade Francois Coty, but a temporary stand will do the trick for now as the club attempts to consolidate. On the pitch, coach Olivier Pantaloni has managed to coax striker Ilan back to Ligue 1 from SC Internacional. The Brazilian knows his way around the penalty boxes of France, and scored consistently for Sochaux and Saint-Etienne before a fall-out with management at the latter club saw him exit the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard. At the other end, Ajaccio will be in safe hands with Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Ochoa had looked on the cusp of a move to PSG before failing a routine doping check at the CONCACAF Gold Cup (he was later exonerated by the Mexican Football Federation) before he accepted Ajaccio’s approach, reputedly turning down twice the salary he will receive in Corsica for a guaranteed first-team berth. Another player turning down PSG?
It happens – very little is predictable in Ligue 1, so get ready for a bumpy ride.