Montpellier, guided by Rene Girard, emerged victorious in what was a thrilling title-race, all but securing a first championship with their 1-0 win over deposed champions Lille on the penultimate weekend of the season, a match which was one of the highlights of the entire European football calendar.
Those looking for a repeat may well be left disappointed with Paris-Saint Germain hell-bent on a first triumph since 1994, and with owners Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) having spent heavily this summer on perennial champion Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his AC Milan teammate Thiago Silva and Napoli’s explosive forward Ezequiel Lavezzi, the capital club will start the season as heavy favourites to take the crown.
Of course, the likes of Lille, Olympique Lyonnais, Marseille, Stade Rennes and Bordeaux will hope to have their say at the top of the table, with European qualification likely to be their main aim.
Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how the newly promoted sides get on, with Troyes and Bastia returning to the top-tier, along with Stade de Reims, the two-time former European Cup runners up who will appear in Ligue 1 for the first time in 33 years.
The action gets underway with Montpellier taking on Toulouse on Friday evening, and they’ll believe in their ability to defend their title. But in perhaps Europe’s most open league, where five different champions have been crowned in the past five seasons, and with Les Parisiens seemingly unstoppable on paper, very few are backing against a sixth different winner come May.
Last Season: 16th
Key Player: Johan Cavalli
On their top-flight return last season, L’ours survived the drop by the skin of their teeth, but an immensely difficult second season lies in store. Alex Dupont has arrived to replace Olivier Pantaloni, but signings have been modest – former France under-21 international midfielder Ricardo Faty the standout – whilst top scorer Ilan has left for rivals Bastia.
Only relegated Dijon conceded more last time round, and defensive reinforcements have been thin on the ground, meaning Guillermo Ochoa is likely to be kept busy. At the other end, playmaker Johan Cavalli will be charged with creating chances, but they’ll need to be more clinical than in previous seasons, if they’re to stand any chance of survival.
Last Season: Promoted – Champions (Ligue 2)
Key Player: Jerome Rothen
An unbeaten home record was the bedrock of the Corsicans run to the Ligue 2 title, with former Monaco and France midfielder Jerome Rothen in fantastic form – subsequently named Ligue 2 player of the year – and manager Frederic Hantz will be hoping for similar at the compact Stade Armand Cesari on their top-flight return.
Whilst the promising Sadio Diallo has left for Rennes, experienced top-flight campaigners have been brought in, including a new striking duo in the form of Brazilian Ilan and the powerful Anthony Modeste (on loan from Bordeaux), to aid Toifilou Maoulida in the sides quest for goals and ultimately safety. Corsica may not be a welcome place for travellers this season.
Girondins de Bordeaux
Last Season: 5th
Key Player: Jaroslav Plasil
Having flattered to deceive during the first half of the last campaign, Francis Gillot’s side, buoyed by the mid-season arrival of Lille playmaker Ludovic Obraniak, had a wonderful run to finish the season, including six wins in their last six matches, to propel them to a fifth place finish.
Having found a good balance from January onwards, not much has changed for Les Girondins over the summer, and they’ll look for Obraniak and Plasil to serve up openings for Yoann Gouffran, whose 14 league goals last season signalled something of a coming-of-age for the striker.
Stade Brestois 29
Last Season: 15th
Key Player: Geoffrey Dernis
Having lost Nolan Roux to Lille during the winter transfer window, Brest almost paid for selling off their best striker with relegation, but the faults of other sides were more pronounced than their own and two wins in their final two matches ultimately saved their skins.
New manager Landry Chauvin has been relatively busy in the transfer market as he looks to create a more potent attacking unit and much will rest on the shoulders of Geoffrey Dernis and Kamil Chafni to improve a side who only scored 31 times in the league last season. A new striker remains a necessity, despite Charlison Benschop’s arrival from AZ Alkmaar, whilst losing Jonathan Zebina to Toulouse is a defensive blow that can’t be underestimated.
Evian Thonon Gaillard
Last Season: 9th
Key Player: Yannick Sagbo
One of last season’s surprise packages in Ligue 1, Pablo Correa will be hoping for more of the same from his adventurous side, who attacked with such verve and vigour throughout the last campaign.
The Danish duo of Thomas Kahlenberg and Christian Poulsen may have left, but new signing Djakaridja Kone could prove a bargain, having arrived from Dinamo Bucharest, and it will be hoped that 10-goal top scorer Yannick Sagbo can once again prove as much of a handful to opposing defences as he did last term.
Last Season: 3rd
Key Player: Marvin Martin
Unquestionably the sale of last year’s Ligue 1 player of the year Eden Hazard to Chelsea is a blow to Les Dogues title chances, whilst Mathieu Debuchy’s future remains up in the air, but Rudi Garcia can be quietly confident that the 2011 champions can at least claim another top-three finish as they move into the new Grand Stade Lille Metropole.
The defence, marshalled by Aurelien Chedjou and Franck Beria remains strong, whilst taking over the sides playmaking mantle from Hazard will be Marvin Martin, the French international who arrives from Sochaux and should play in his favoured central role. Salomon Kalou has also arrived from Chelsea on a free transfer, and with his pace, movement and eye-for-goal, a regular starting berth could see him finally develop into the player who promised so much at Feyenoord. Expect Garcia’s side to once more play some of the most aesthetically pleasing football in France.
Last Season: 17th
Key Player: Alain Traore
Only 35 goals in 38 games tells its own story for Les Merlus, who finished just one point above the relegation places last season and Christian Gourcuff won’t want a similar struggle this time round.
They still haven’t efficiently replaced Kevin Gameiro who joined PSG 12 months ago, whilst Joel Campbell has returned to Arsenal, although a second loan-spell has been mooted. Alain Traore has arrived from Auxerre, and his trickery and creative talents should boost the goals for column, as should the signing of ex-Monaco and Barcelona forward Ludovic Giuly, whose experience could prove vital.
Last Season: 4th
Key Player: Lisandro Lopez
Some 18 points off top spot last season and no place in the Champions League for the first time in a decade, Remi Gaarde knows that Les Gones must improve this season, success in last year’s Coupe de France not enough to hide that fact.
The goals of Lisandro Lopez will once again be crucial – 26 in all competitions for the Argentine hitman last season – whilst youngsters such as Alexandre Lacazette, Dejan Lovren and Maxime Gonalons should continue to improve. Additionally, much will be expected once more of Yoann Gourcuff, the talented playmaker who, now aged 26, must start stamping his class on proceedings at the Stade de Gerland, especially after the departures of Kim Kallstrom and Ederson to Spartak Moscow and Lazio respectively.
Despite their recent austerity measures – with finances being focused away from transfers and towards a new stadium – the front trio of Lisandro, Bafetimbi Gomis and Jimmy Briand, should be able to fire them back into a Europe’s premier club competition come the end of the season.
Last Season: 10th
Key Player: Loic Remy
To say Didier Deschamps final season at the Stade Velodrome was a strange one is putting it mildly to say the least. A dismal run of mid-season defeats ended any title hopes they may have had and L’OM finished well off the pace in 10th. However, they did reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League and were victorious in the Coupe de la League, despite the backroom war taking place between Deschamps and sporting director Jose Anigo.
As such, new boss Elie Baup (whose last post at Nantes ended in 2009) has a talented collection of players, including the clever attacking midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, powerful centre-back Nicolas N’Koulou and striker Loic Remy, who scored a career best 20 goals last time round, who should be competing for a European place come the end of the season. The question is whether Baup can mould his talented individuals into an effective unit, something that Deschamps struggled with in 2011/12.
Last Season: 1st – Champions
Key Player: Younes Belhanda
The reigning champions stunned French football with their maiden Ligue 1 crown, but the sale of prolific striker Olivier Giroud to Arsenal will have been a blow to their hopes of successive titles.
However, manager Rene Girard has set about enhancing his squad and replacing Giroud’s goals with clever new additions in the form of Argentine striker Emmanuel Herrera from Chilean side Union Espanola, talented left-winger Anthony Mounier and Gaëtan Charbonnier. The impressive Toulouse defender Daniel Congre has also arrived to add to Girard’s defensive options.
Crucially for La Paillade, both captain and defensive bedrock Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa and Moroccan midfield star Younes Belhanda remain at the club, whilst big things are expected of Remy Cabella following his breakthrough campaign last term.
Last Season: 11th
Key Player: Yohan Mollo
That Nancy didn’t win in their opening 10 matches last season and still managed an 11th place finish was testament to the good work done by the wily Jean Fernandez.
Yohan Mollo has been signed to add more creativity to a side that netted just 38 times last season, whilst last seasons solid defence remains. But a genuine goalscorer is still missing from the squad, which could see a difficult season ahead for Les Chardons, although they should have enough overall quality to see them through.
Last Season: 13th
Key Player: Luciano Fabian Monzon
Rene Marsiglia has been replaced by Claude Puel, the former Lille and Lyon coach who is something of a divisive figure amongst French football followers, but Nice will have to go some to avoid a struggle this season. Top scorer Anthony Mounier has left (Dario Cvitanich arriving from Ajax as his replacement), likewise dependable defender Francois Clerc.
Left-back Luciano Monzon scored eight league goals last season, impressing hugely after his signing from Boca Juniors, but he could be a target for some of Europe’s bigger clubs before the August transfer window closes. Elsewhere, the side, whilst not short on effort, simply lacks inspiration.
Last Season: 2nd
Key Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Carlo Ancelotti’s expensively assembled squad are odds-on favourites to claim the crown that they couldn’t procure last season – despite having led the table when the Italian was hired in place of the sacked Antoine Kombouare on December 30th - for which the former Milan and Chelsea boss has been heavily criticised in some quarters.
Nonetheless, director of football Leonardo has spent the summer plundering Italian football to ensure 2012/13 isn’t a similar story – spending over €90m on Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and talented regista Marco Verratti – and PSG look simply formidable.
With Silva and compatriot Alex at centre-back, ably backed by the outstanding Italian keeper Salvatore Sirigu, and protected by Thiago Motta, the side should prove far more dominant defensively, whilst the arrivals of Lavezzi and Ibrahimovic add a true world-class edge to the frontline. Javier Pastore should continue the fine work of his debut season, where he scored 13 times from midfield and showed himself to be a truly gifted enganche.
Stade de Reims
Last Season: Promoted – 2nd (Ligue 2)
Key Player: Kamel Ghilas
European Cup runners-up in the 1950′s, Reims return to the top-flight for the first time since 1978/79 and Hubert Fournier’s side have set about strengthening on their Ligue 1 return.
Former Hull City striker Kamel Ghilas has returned after his successful loan spell last season, when he scored 14 goals, and his pace and movement will be an important feature of their play, but top scorer Cedric Faure has remained in the second-tier with Gungamp. Ghilas aside, other signings have been somewhat underwhelming, and should Ghilas and Nicolas Fauvergue struggle to form an effective goalscoring partnership, then it could be a long season in the Champagne region.
Last Season: 6th
Key Player: Jonathan Pitroipa
Following successive sixth-place finishes, it’s been business as usual for manager Federico Antonetti, who once again looks to have held onto star midfielder Yann M’Vila, as well as Jonathan Pitroipa, the former Hamburg winger who had an excellent debut season in French football.
Clever signings in the form of Sadio Diallo and Romain Alessandrini – scorer of 22 goals for Clermont Foot in the last two years – have been forthcoming, whilst Mevlut Erdinc will be at the club for the entire season and powerful defender Onyekachi Apam is hopefully over his injury troubles. Rennes took 28 points on the road last season, but to continue improving must better their home record, where they only won 8 of 19 matches.
Last Season: 7th
Key Player: Pierre Emerick Aubameyang
The ten-time French champions have been much improved over the last two years, having finished 17th in 2010, 10th in 2011 and 7th last term, thanks to Christophe Galtier’s impressive management.
Talented young players such as Max Gradel, Romain Hamouma and the Gabon striker Pierre Aubameyang give the side an attacking edge, built on the solid base given to them by goalkeeper Stephane Ruffier. Francois Clerc adds experience to the defence and Loic Perrin is an underrated anchorman in midfield. They’re capable of challenging the top six once more, but may fall slightly short this time round.
Last Season: 14th
Key Player: Ryad Boudebouz
Les Lionceaux struggled last season, and were only saved from the drop by three wins in their final three fixtures, a run which has seen caretaker manager Eric Hely given the job on a permanent deal.
The clubs two chief threats – Modibo Maiga and Marvin Martin – have both departed over the summer, but talented Algerian Ryad Boudebouz remains and much pressure rests on his shoulders. Another season of comfort in mid-table would be more than acceptable.
Last Season: 8th
Key Player: Emmanuel Riviere
A disappointing final six games ensured that Toulouse finished outside the European places, but they’ll be optimistic again this season. Young forward Emmanuel Riviere is rich in promise, whilst Etienne Capoue continues to develop into a midfielder of some repute.
Alain Casanova’s side averaged less than a goal a game last season, and will need to become more clinical, most notably Riviere. Nonetheless, their solid defence mostly remains in tact, despite Daniel Congre’s move to champions Montpellier. The vastly-experienced Jonathan Zebina has arrived as his replacement.
ES Troyes AC
Last Season: Promoted – 3rd (Ligue 2)
Key Player: Marcos
Troyes claimed promotion on the back of an excellent end to the season, losing just once in 11 matches, but a season of struggle lies in wait for Jean-Marc Furlan’s side.
Scorers of a mere 45 goals in their promotion season, which encompassed only four wins on the road, the squad is relatively inexperienced in Ligue 1, and goals, or lack there of, could well prove their undoing.
Last Season: 12th
Key Player: Nicolas Penneteau
Only relegated Dijon lost more matches than Valenciennes last season, who despite finishing in 12th, lost 19 of their 38 games.
The side have seen talented midfield duo Renaud Cohade and Carlos Moreno depart, without really replacing them, and goals look thin on the ground. 11 of their 19 wins came at the Stade du Hainaut, and they’ll need it to be a fortress once more to not be dragged into a relegation battle.