With a lot of talking point in French football this summer, Niall Farrell gives his insight in to the new Ligue 1 campaign.
Of the ‘big 5’ leagues last year (the top 5 UEFA leagues, based on coefficient – that’s the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 respectively), the French Ligue 1 had the lowest average age, and the lowest percentage of foreign players in the league. The emphasis is on homegrown players, and recent French exports (Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema being prime examples) represent this emphasis. Many ‘big’ foreign clubs seem to see Ligue 1 as a sort of production line, churning out talented French youngsters every few months. The league, therefore, should be dynamic, what with all the exporting. Yet from the 2000/01 season to last season, only Lyon won the league title. Lyon’s repeated failure at the European stage led many analysts to see French teams as inferior to English, Spanish and Italian teams.
Last season saw what could be the beginning of a reversal of fortunes for French football. Bordeaux, who for so long were the bridesmaid to Lyon, at last won the Championship, with Marseille under the now-departed Eric Gerets pushing them close. Although Karim Benzema has left France, one of the highest-profile up-and-coming French stars, Youann Gourcuff, signed for Bordeaux after playing on loan from Milan last season. Young players like Gourcuff, Henri Saivet and Hugo Lloris cement the league’s reputation as one for talented youth.
With the permanent signing of Gourcuff, Bordeaux look a strong outfit again. From last March until the end of the season, Bordeaux won every match. Gourcuff was at the centre of everything the club did, marshalling the midfield, controlling possesion, setting up goals and scoring 12 himself. Players like the Argentinian duo of defender Diego Placente and forward Fernando Cavenaghi, Czech midfielder Jaroslav Plasil and ‘wonderkid’ striker Henri Saivet are instrumental to Bordeaux. The only possible weak spot is up front, with news that star striker Marouane Chamakh may leave.
Possible dark horses are plentiful in Ligue 1, and my tips to do well are Auxerre, Lille and Rennes. Auxerre have always been a ‘selling club’- producing players like Djibril Cisse, Phillipe Mexes, Laurent Blanc and Eric Cantona. This season, AJA have managed to keep hold of their prize asset, Polish forward Ireneusz Jelen, while club captain Benoit Pedretti is probably one of the most under-rated midfielders in France. Lille made the Europa League last season, which may test the depth of their talented squad, which features; Mickael Landreau, Rio Mavuba, Tulio De Melo and Robert Vittek. If all goes well and they stay injury free, Lille could well be riding high in the standings when the end of the season arrives. My choice of Rennes as ‘dark horses’ may surprise some people, but Les Rouges et Noirs have been one of the most consistent forces in Ligue 1 in recent years, finishing in the top 7 in each of the last 5 seeasons. The signing of veteran Japanese midfielder Junichi Inamoto bolsters an already talented squad.
This year, Lyon face into the new season in a way they haven’t since the last Millennium (sounds longer than it actually is). Claude Puel’s team blew a 7 point lead at the top of the table which they had last February and psychologically the team must recover. Added to all this, Karim Benzema has left, along with Freddy Piquionne (on loan to Portsmouth). This leaves huge pressure on the remaining front line strikers (captain Sidney Govou, Bafetimbi Gomis and new boy Lisandro Lopez). The side still has quality throughout and with players like Grosso, Toulalan, Lloris, Kallstrom and Makoun, Lyon won’t be far from the top of the table.
Marseille surprised many people last season by overcoming their perpetual ‘also-rans’ tag to mount a credible title challenge. Manager Eric Gerets may have followed the money to Qatar, but new manager Didier Deschamps is already a fan’s favourite (he was l’OM’s captain when they won the European Cup in 1992/93). Deschamps seems to be focusing on adding strength to this Marseille team, signing Gabriel Heinze and Fernando Morientes. Marseille look like another good bet for the title as a creative midfield of Lucho Gonzalez, Hatem Ben Arfa, Mamadou Niang and Benoit Cheyrou is at least one of, if not the best in the league.
Over in the principality, Monaco will look to rebuild after a very disappointing few seasons. They will aim to do so under the tutelage of Guy Lacombe, who comes with a solid reputation built up at Rennes. Nevertheless, the fact that this summer’s ‘big signing’ at Monaco was Djimi Traore tells its own story.
If I had to describe Toulouse in one word, it would be enigmatic. Le Tef battled relegation two years ago, only to finish 4th last season. Andre Pierre Gignac scored the winner for France recently in Torshavn and the 23 year-old scored 24 times for Toulouse last season. TFC do lack depth, and European Competition may stretch this squad to the limit.
The teams battling against relegation this season should be Saint Etienne, who just about survived under Alain Perrin last season, relegation favourites Valenciennes, Boulogne and Grenoble. Montpellier, back in the top flight after 5 seasons, should be strong enough to survive.
In the capital, Paris Saint Germain should be able to build on their previous position of 6th. New manager Antoine Kombouare has ambitious plans for PSG, and he has signed a partner for Mateja Kezman in the highly rated Turkish forward Mevlut Erdinc, brought in from Sochaux.
After the first round of fixtures, Bordeaux are top the table on goal difference, and that is exactly where Girondins will hope to be at the end of the season. Marseille and Lyon are expected to challenge, but don’t be surprised to see PSG, Lille, Auxerre, Lille, Rennes or even Toulouse up there too.