A condensed version of this article also featured on Guardian Sport.
Race for the Title
Champions in five of the last six seasons, anything other than an 8th Ligue 1 title in Paris Saint-Germain’s history would be mammoth surprise. Although PSG have skirted the transfer spotlight so far this summer, FFP still a concern, Le Parisien’s have quietly, and finally, made a few shrewd moves. The appointment of Thomas Tuchel will mean a far more proactive and tactically diverse outfit, a move that hints the club may at last be moving the foucing to the longer term, albeit at a glacial pace. Gianluigi Buffon, their only major addition to date, could be the dressing room leader (and quality keeper) they have long lacked while a number of hangers on have been or will be moved on, creating space for a vibrant young generation emerging from their academy. The 4-0 win over Monaco, minus Mbappe, Cavani and Neymar from the start, in the Trophee des Champions confirmed that the gap is only widening.
Unlike last summer, the furore surrounding Nabil Fekir aside, Lyon have enjoyed a relatively quiet and static window. Where last summer Bruno Genesio lost Alex Lacazette, Corentin Tolisso and Maxime Gonalons, this window has yet to rob them of midfield starlets Tanguy Ndombele, Lucas Tousart or Houssem Aouar while forwards Memphis Depay, superb at the end of last season, and Mariano Diaz also remain. Should they keep captain Fekir, OL are best placed to challenge PSG, although the feeling that Bruno Genesio, so often on the brink of being removed during his three years in charge only to repeatedly dramatically rescue the situation, still carries the feeling that he is one move away from implosion. Second, and automatic Champions League football, could be theirs nevertheless.
Somewhat mirroring events at Parc OL, Marseille have also managed to hold off the advances for their key player Florian Thauvin and, despite the disappointment of only finishing fourth and a meke surrender in the Europa League final, also have an opportunity to build on what was a positive campaign overall as the self styled ‘Champions Project’ was finally taken (semi) seriously. Further parallels with OL come in that major signings are non-existent, Red Bull Salzburg’s Croatian centre back Duje Caleta-Car being the only new man. If they are to have any chance of challenging PSG however, a striker is desperately needed after Valere Germain and Kostas Mitroglou suffered wayward seasons last term. Mario Balotelli could be their man.
Monaco are a club that work in cycles. A group of promising young players is carefully pieced together, they are developed expertly by manager Leonardo Jardim before an eye-catching achievement brings huge bids. Their glorious 2017 league win ended the latest cycle and after Thomas Lemar and Fabinho were the last of that side out of the door this summer, Monaco hit the reset button. With the new cycle just beginning little can be expected of this group for some time, while the 4-0 loss to PSG in the Trophee des Champions underlined the improvements yet to be made. Nevertheless success of some kind remains crucial and a top three spot is their aim but, although the additions of Alexander Golovin and host of Ligue 1 prospects is potentially exciting, the two Olympic clubs might be too good for them even if Radamel Falcao and Kamil Gilk remain to help them through what might be a difficult season.
Nine months on from what was perhaps the darkest night in their history as Nabil Fekir, of bitter Rhone-Alps derby rivals Lyon, mockingly held his shirt aloft to the Chaudron crowd having just slammed home the fifth in a 5-0 away win, St Etienne are back. Jean-Louis Gasset’s subtle approach gradually returned the squad’s confidence and a forward thinking style. An improbable European challenge may narrowly have fallen short, relegation had been a genuine concern at one point, but this season could see them as the closest challengers to what is now a thoroughly ensconced top 4. Whabi Khazi, after a standout season leading Rennes’ forward line, joins Remy Cabella, who showed his best form since his Montpellier days on loan last term, and a equally the rejuvenated Mathieu Debuchy and Yann M’Vila. With the leadership of club legend Loic Perrin at the back aided by Ligue 1’s best keeper in Stephane Ruffier and with no European football to worry about, 5th a return to Europe might be a minimum expectation.
Despite having failed to secure a permanent deal for last season’s key man Wahbi Khazri and the loss of premier centre back Joris Gnagnon, Rennes fans will remains positive. When wizened veteran coach Christian Gourcuff was replaced surprisingly by Sabri Lamouchi in 2017, Rennes future seemed to be in flux but Lamouchi’s tenure has proven an unexpected success. With the addition of promising Ligue 2 forwards in Jordy Siebatcheu and Romain del Castillo, the potentially match winning midfielder Clement Grenier who finally managed to get over a career of injuries with Guingamp last term and the continued development of rangey Senegalese forward Ismaila Sarr and technical wide man Benjamin Bourigeaud, Rennes have the chance to establish themselves as European regulars this season.
Having been in the bottom three under Jocelyn Gourvennec who suffered through an unruly squad and some dire displays, a miraculous 6th under in the coming Gus Poyet was an astounding achievement. However, their success was caveated by their fellow challengers (Montpellier and Nantes in particular) failing to take countless chances to extended their lead over the chasing pack and by the influence of Malcom. With the Brazilian off to Barcelona and the teams around Bordeaux looking strong, Ligue 1 may not be so kind to Poyet this time. Crucially, Malcom is yet to be replaced - not counting promising Gent winger Samuel Kalu - while Poyet, no stranger to hitting the big red self-destruct button, is seemingly already discontented.
Ligue 1 clubs, and the league itself, have become accustomed to summer exoduses. Nice however, have suffered through one of the more depleteous windows in sometime. The 18m paid by Fulham for the irreplaceable Jean Seri barely represents his importance to Les Aiglon in recent times, meanwhile the loss of Alassane Plea’s and likely Mario Balotelli’s goals may prove equally difficult to overcome. Potentially the most damaging exit however comes in the shape of manager Lucien Favre who joined Dortmund. The Swiss coach’s nuanced and astute management helped Nice wonderfully overachieve, being top at Christmas in 2016 and coming close to another top 6 spot last term, making the EL knockout stages. Nevertheless the inevitable excitement surrounding Patrick Vieira’s arrival and a handful of characteristically under the radar signings from a superb scouting team could yet be enough to see a new look Nice take a top 6 spot.
Ligue 1 relegation intrigue was only accentuated last season by the introduction of a relegation play off spot for the side finishing 18th. Toulouse, their comfortable play off win over Ajaccio making them the first beneficiaries of the new system, could again be in trouble having sold key players in towering centre back Issa Diop to West Ham and cat-like keeper Alban Lafont to Fiorentina. Although they added much needed creativity in promising FIFA Golden Boy nominee Manu Garcia from Manchester City, Metz’s leading assist provider Mathieu Dossevi (11) and crucially held onto Max Gradel, the return of Alain Casanova, who spent seven seasons in charge between 2008 and 2015 and guided TFC (with Andre-Pierre Gignac’s help) as high as fourth in 09, remains an surprising decision given that spell ended in the sack and a relegation battle. Fortunately for Casanova, he may find that there are simply three less-equipped sides than his to fight relegation.
Successive final day draws against PSG have provided Caen with an unlikely escape from the drop in the last two campaigns and after the pragmatic Patrice Garande was replaced by Ligue 1 rookie Fabien Mercadal after he spearheaded promoted Paris FC’s unlikely Ligue 2 playoff push last year while his new squad was radically overhauled, they may not be as fortunate this time around. The experience of midfield stalwart Julien Feret and bullish centre back Damien Da Silva while be missed while Ivan Santini, the Croatian accounting for 11 of a miserly 27 last term, has been replaced by a trio of forwards with worryingly average striking records in Yacine Bammou (Nantes), Casimir Ninga (Montpellier) and Enzo Crivelli who signed last winter. With their previously stoic defense depleted and fewer goals, a return to Ligue 2 seems likely.
Since their promotion three years ago, Angers have continued to surprise. A team of pieced together from Ligue 2 standouts found itself third at Christmas upon promotion, while the wiley management of Stephane Moulin and the goals of Karl Toko-Ekambi has dragged them clear of the drop in the last two campaigns. With Ekambi sold to Villarreal and midfield orchestrator Thomas Mangani edging into his thirties and away from his best form, the quality of their squad is thinning and is full of uninspiring newcomers while no genuine goalscoring replacement has been found. Moulin has managed to magic his team to safety before but the task before him this time may be unmanageable.
Historic club Stade Reims, beaten by Real Madrid in the first European Cup final of 1956, find themselves amongst the elite once more after a two year absence. However, much of the side that propelled the Champagne region club back to Ligue 1 via a 15 point winning margin in the second tier have moved on. Leading centre back, Julian Jeanvier, joined Brentford last week, midfield sentinel Danilson Da Cruz remained in Ligue 2 with Nancy while star forwards Jordy Siebatcheu and Diego Rigonato were poacted by Rennes and UAE outfit Al Dhafra respectively. Without his title winning spine and replacements thin, talented young coach David Guion (formerly coach of Reims’ youth sides) will do well to mould a competitive team this term.
A characterically raucous home crowd inspired a thrilling 3-2 win over Lyon with two games to play that saved Thierry Lauray’s Strasbourg last term after a dire run of 11 league matches without a win. This season they will again be relying on their home form to keep them afloat. However, significant turnover this summer may make a second survival a little tricky with dynamic midfielder Jean Aholou joining Monaco and standout forward Martian Terrier returning to Lyon. Unlike their rivals however they have managed to find worthy replacements; Nantes’ attacking midfielder Adrien Thomasson will add guile while the additions of Gent centre back Stefan Mitrovic and Sunderland defender Lamine Kone will solidify them defensively. Weather Ligue 2 Clermont’s 14 goal Ludovic Ajorque can handle the jump in class might decide their fate.
Considering Amiens were a third tier club just two years ago and have the league’s smallest budget, the manner by which Christophe Pelissier’s team survived last term, finishing 13th in their first ever top flight campaign, amounted to arguably the most astonishing achievement of the Ligue 1 season. This year however looks even more challenging for Pellissier. Having lost talismanic forward Gael Kakuta and a handful of other first teamers while struggling to replace those departed, a third season in Ligue 1 may be Pellisier’s greatest trick yet. The league’s fourth best defence remains largely intact however and it is here that their seemingly slimming hopes lie.
Unlike Stade de Reims, fellow promoted club Nimes have enjoyed a successful transfer window avoiding any major losses. The second tier’s top scorers (75 goals) have, for now, kept hold of Umut Bozok, Ligue 2’s leading scorer with 24, and partner Rachid Alioui (17 goals) while adding Guingamp’s experienced midfielder Moustapha Diallo and significantly bolstering their defence with standout second tier performers, a proven way for promoted sides to stay afloat. The addition of Lorient winger meanwhile Denis Bouanga was something of a coup, the 23 year old having been linked to a raft of more established clubs, and has aided them in vaulting those clubs likely to be their competitors, who, unlike Nimes, are far more likely to struggle for goals. In comparison to those around them, Nimes will be quietly confident of staying up.
Players to Watch
Giovanni Lo Celso (PSG) - Former Rosario midfielder’s guile caught the eye last term as Unai Emery successfully eased him in to the first team, the 22 year old’s vision and creativity could prove crucial to Thomas Tuchel. A poor display at the Bernabeu now behind him.
Aleksandr Golovin (Monaco) - After a handful of superb displays for Russia at the world cup, Golovin is comfortably Moanco’s headline addition this summer. With Joao Moutinho and Fabinho sold, much of the creative responsibility will fall to him.
Houssem Aouar (Lyon) - Iniesta-like in the way he effortlessly glides around the pitch, gracefully picking defense splitting passes, Aouar is Ligue 1’s next superstar. Having been moved around last season, hopefully he will be left to settle and develop in his favoured central role.
Bouna Sarr (Marseille) - Having been barely on the fringes of the team as a winger, Rudi Garcia’s decision to move Sarr to right back last year proved very astute. Now first choice and close to France call up, his all action style is a key weapon for OM, and he can defend too.
Valentin Rongier (Nantes) - Captain for the season, silky yet intense midfielder Rongier will be central to new boss Miguel Cardoso’s plans this year. Having emerged from FCN’s academy and survived a horrible knee injury, this could be Rongier’s year with Napoli already keen.
Ismaila Sarr (Rennes) - Oodles of pace, unashamedly direct and prodigiously skillful, at just 20 Senegalese international Sarr is one of Ligue 1’s most exciting talents. If he can add a consistent stream of goals, he may not be around long.
Nolan Roux (Guingamp) - Often derided for his wayward finishing and lack of composure, 15 goals for bottom side Metz having not made double figures previously was the most unexpected story of last year. Retaining such clinical form will be key for an average Guingamp side.
Jules Kounde (Bordeaux) - Their defense proving alarmingly porous last winter, Bordeaux were sured up unexpectedly by this talented 19 year old centre back. Keeping more experienced men out of the side, Kounde’s calm, intelligent and physical presence will be pivotal for Gus Poyet again.
1st PSG: Despite the lack of marquee signings PSG have progressed this summer. A far more likeable and tactically innovative coach, the leader and keeper so sorely missed and trimming a baggy squad to make way for youngsters are all key improvements.
2nd Lyon: Although rarely far from the brink, Bruno Genesio remains in charge of a youthful, vibrant team that retains its best players (for now). Another year’s progress for Aouar, Ndombele, Tousart and even Depay, superb in 2018 could see them challenge.
3rd OM: Having been something of a perpetual punchline the ‘Champions Project’ gathered momentum last season as Marseille continued to reassert themselves. Payet, Thauvin, Rami and Gustavo need a top class centre forward to join them if OM are to progress.
4th Monaco: Retaining Jardim for another season was Monaco’s biggest coup of the summer but with a new cycle underway this fresh young side likely won’t truly coalesce until next season even if Golovin, Falcao and a host of Ligue 1 prospects could prove exciting.
5th St Etienne: Ten months on from the 5-0 derby loss to OL, Jean Louis Gasset’s subtle, considered management has gradually rebuilt the club and the player’s confidence. Some eye-catching additions in Khazri and Cabella see them lead the rest of the league.
6th Lille: The final EL spot, assuming cups go to the top 5, will be tight this year. No EL football, a much improved squad (Remy, Bamba, Fonte, Xeka) and a host of improving youngsters should give the pragmatic Galtier the tools to, as usual, grind out wins.
7th Nantes: With Ranieri and captain Dubois departing a workmanlike squad, Nantes were doomed to midtable but the possession and press instigated by new man Cardoso & some astute signings is Lucas, Waris and Boschilla will keep President Kita quiet for a while.
8th Rennes: Although losing Gnagnon + Khazri will be unpalatable, the guile of Grenier and Bourigeaud and the pace plus trickery of Sarr remains an attractive proposition. Lamouchi has impressed so far, a second top 6 finish amid an EL run will be tough though.
9th Bordeaux: For Poyet to take Les Girondins from relegation to Europe in half a season verged on the miraculous, but with Malcom gone and signings thin Ligue 1 might not be so kind to Bordeaux this season. Watch out for defender Kounde (19) though.
10th Nice: Nice suffered through something of an exodus this summer, Plea (14 goals), Seri (lynchpin) Favre (L1’s best coach) and likely Balotelli will be difficult to replace. They could struggle, despite the excitement surrounding Vieira's appointment.
11th Montpellier: Goals have long been Montpellier’s and manager Der Zakarian’s problem. An EL challenge last season was built on organisation with their back 5, lead by 40 year old Hilton, often impenetrable, but new striker Delort is unlikely to bring goals.
12th Dijon: A highlight of last season, Dall'Oglio’s expansive style brought some stunning home form & some suicidal away trips (8-0 at PSG) and the loss of defender Djilobodji won’t help but the arrival of Gourcuff could add a little more control in midfield.
13th Guingamp: Losing Briand, Grenier and maybe Salibur will be difficult to cover but Kombouare remains one of Ligue 1’s most effective coaches and, especially if Roux (15 goals for Metz) can maintain his new efficiency, EAG should amble along in midtable.
14th Strasbourg: The raucous crowd that helped them home last term will be key again while new men Thomasson (Nantes), Ajorque (14 goals for Clermont) and Mitrovic (Gent defender) should make up from losing premier forward Terrier and midfield dynamo Ahoulou.
15th Toulouse: Cashing in on prize assets Diop and Lafont could yet prove worthwhile if the desperately needed creativity they have been able to add in Bostock, Garcia & Doessvi jels. Casanova’s coaching return remains curious however but there should be at 3 worse teams.
16th Nimes: Their promotion squad in tact “The Crocodiles” will be quietly confident of survival. Bozok and Alioui give them a goal threat (41 last year) while they have bolstered their back-line with some Ligue 2 standouts, a proven method of staying afloat.
17th Caen: Sold striker Santini’s pair of Anderlecht hat tricks last week underline the hole he left at Caen. With unproven L1 coach Mercadal, who took Paris FC to 5th in Ligue 2 last term, and a worsening squad, Da Silva & Feret also out, they could struggle.
18th Amiens: Pellissier’s achievement in taking Amiens to L1 midtable with the league’s smallest budget can’t be understated but without Kakuta amongst others this term, although the signings of Krafth and Kurzawa look promising, their squad could be too thin.
19th Reims: Despite the talents of young coach Guion, a superb opening day win at Nice may mask a depleted promotion squad who’s spine (Jeanvier, Cruz, Diego, Siebatcheu) has been removed over the window. Romao is a good start but more replacements are needed.
20th Angers: Angers have routinely surprised since their Ligue 1 return 3 years ago but with Toko-Ekambi goals sold and orchestrator Mangani edging into his thirties, coach Moulin’s magic might not be enough to elevate a very average looking squad.
by Adam White