FRENCH LEAGUE 2018-19: PSG forced to sell, still favored

PARIS (AP) — The gap between Paris Saint-Germain and its domestic rivals is so huge that any sense of suspense has been killed in the French league even before the start of the new season.

With finances unrivalled in France, PSG has won five of the past six league titles — including last season when it achieved another domestic treble — and nothing is expected to change.

The real question for the upcoming season is whether the gap between the Qatari-backed team and its European rivals has shrunk after yet another early exit for PSG in the Champions League, at the hands of Real Madrid in the last 16. Since cash-rich investors QSI took over in 2011, the club has not reached the semifinals in Europe’s top competition.

“The objective is always the same, to win,” PSG forward Neymar said about the Champions League. “Our team focus is bigger each season. We expect to have a successful season with a lot of titles and, of course, we expect to win the Champions League, which is the biggest tournament in the world.”

Despite rumors he could leave PSG to sign with Madrid only one year after joining for a record fee of 222 million euros, Neymar said he will be staying in the French capital, where he will be teaming up in attack with Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe, whose speed and dribbling skills helped France to win the World Cup last month.

Apart from the signing of veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, PSG has yet to make a big transfer coup this year. The club’s spending remains under UEFA scrutiny and PSG was asked in June to raise cash selling players before its latest financial year closed. PSG has since sold midfielder Javier Pastore to Roma for 24.5 million euros ($28.6 million) and other players to help balance accounts made lopsided by the world-record deal to buy Neymar from Barcelona.

PSG, which warmed up for the season with a 4-0 win over Monaco in the Champions Trophy over the weekend, has enough quality in its current squad to dominate the league under new coach Thomas Tuchel. But the German will need some reinforcement to mount a credible Champions League challenge.

Following the retirement of Thiago Motta and the departures of Pastore, left back Yuri Berchiche and midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, Tuchel needs to focus on the defensive balance.

“If we play with three at the back, we need more center backs,” Tuchel said. “We have three center backs (Marquinhos, Thiago Silva and Presnel Kimpembe) at the top level. But we have to be prepared. We could talk for hours about what center back I would like. I am not a coach who demands players but will see what makes sense. I am a bit concerned for the defense, but everything is possible and I am prepared for anything.”

Tuchel has signed a two-year deal as a replacement for Unai Emery, and one of his main tasks will be to control the big egos filling his squad, at a club where big players often call all the shots.

“I hope and I truly believe we can create a spirit in here and live up to it,” Tuchel said. “I believe the biggest players have a sense (that) you need this to achieve the biggest goals.”

BIDDING ON YOUTH

Monaco has lost more key players in Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho and forward Thomas Lemar. The Frenchman, who was part of the squad that won the World Cup in Russia, has left for Atletico Madrid. The pair played a decisive role when Monaco won the 2017 French league title.

The Principality team, however, managed to keep Radamel Falcao at least until the midseason transfer window and recruited several young players, including Russia midfielder Aleksandr Golovin. The 22-year-old Golovin joined on a five-year deal reportedly worth 30 million euros. To compensate for Moutinho’s departure, Monaco has also picked up 24-year-old Ivory Coast international Jean-Eudes Aholou, who scored five goals in 35 appearances with Strasbourg last season.

LYON IN THE HUNT

Back in the Champions League this season, seven-time champion Lyon will be fighting for the runner-up spot behind PSG alongside Monaco, Marseille, Nice and Saint-Etienne.

Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas hopes he will manage to keep its backbone and impressive attacking lineup intact despite the strong interest from several European clubs created by France forward Nabil Fekir. The Liverpool target scored 18 goals in 30 league appearances for Lyon last season.

Lyon added defensive strength with the signing of Nantes right back Leo Dubois, one of the brightest prospects in the French league.