This article also appeared on Guardian Sport.
The title contenders
At first glance Thomas Tuchel’s first season at the Parc des Princes seemed littered with disasters: the now almost clichéd collapse in the Champions League; the surrender of a two-goal lead in the Coupe de France final, which they lost to Rennes on penalties; the trio of penalties they conceded against Guingamp as they were knocked out of the Coupe de la Ligue at the quarter-finals.
Despite these aberrations, Tuchel had a productive campaign. PSG won Ligue 1 by playing a more versatile, streetwise and intense style of football, which initially bred optimism following wins over Liverpool in the Champions League group stage and in the first leg of their last-16 game against United at Old Trafford. PSG looked like an effective and intelligent outfit as they won 26 of their first 29 league games but, with the title all but secured, they did not maintain the intensity Tuchel relies upon to go further in the cups (and they were terribly unlucky to lose to a debatable last-minute penalty against United).
To Tuchel’s credit, the team’s quiet improvement occurred despite the usual soap opera that engulfs the club. The manager’s relationship with then sporting director Antero Henrique descended into the irrevocable; a lack of midfield additions pushed Tuchel to routinely criticise the club hierarchy as he refused to fill his bench in the final weeks of the season to underline his frustrations (youth products were available to fill gaps); and issues over Adrian Rabiot’s contract and Neymar’s longer-term future proved increasingly distracting.
The mood has improved. Tuchel has signed a new deal; Henrique has been replaced by the more agreeable Leonardo; Rabiot has departed for Juventus; and quality midfield reinforcements have arrived in the form of Ander Herrera, Pablo Sarabia and Idrissa Gueye. While their mental frailty may still prove troublesome in the bigger games, the league title is probably already theirs.
Lyon could theoretically provide some resistance, assuming new manager Sylvinho beds in quickly. They have made some excellent signings, bringing in left-back Youssouf Koné and bullish midfielder Thiago Mendes from Lille as well as centre-back Joachim Andersen from Sampdoria, although they have also lost key players Nabil Fékir to Real Betis, Tanguy Ndombele to Tottenham Hotspur and Ferland Mendy to Real Madrid.
The Champions League chasers
With Nicolas Pépé, Mendes, Koné and Rafael Leão (now of Milan) all gone, Lille’s hopes of repeating the rampaging form that took them to second place in Ligue 1 last season rest heavily on sporting director Luis Campos. Having helped Monaco recruit inexpensive young players and win the title in 2017, Campos unearthed much of the squad that dragged Lille up the table last season, transforming them from relegation battlers to title challengers in less than a year following Marcelo Bielsa’s disastrous spell at the club.
However, even if Campos has repeated that feat in the transfer market by signing Victor Osimhen and Yusuf Yazici this summer, the burden of remaining competitive in both Europe and what will be a tightly packed division behind PSG may prove overwhelming. Third place would be a huge achievement.
Marseille, who do not face the distraction of European football, will be aiming for the top three again. Reinforcements have been thin but, for now, Florian Thauvin, Dimitri Payet, Morgan Sanson and sought-after teenage defender Boubacar Kamara remain at the Vélodrome – with new coach André Villas-Boas “waiting anxiously for the Premier League market to close”. Whether or not Darío Benedetto – who has arrived from Boca Juniors – emulates the impact Mario Balotelli had in the second half of last season will be central to their hopes. Champions League or not, some semblance of stability would welcome.
A resurgent St Étienne, led by the equally rejuvenated Yann M’Vila and Wahbi Khazri, will hope that Ghislain Printant, their affable former assistant manager, will cover the loss of retiring coach Jean-Louis Gasset. Gasset rescued the club following the worst night in their history two seasons ago – when they lost 5-0 at home to rivals Lyon, with relegation a real concern at the time. However, some exciting additions from lower down the league (Denis Bouanga, Zaydou Youssouf) may not be enough to maintain a top-three challenge as St Étienne return to Europe, the ensuing busy schedule having been a thorn in their side in the past.
The Europa League hopefuls
After PSG had won both cups for four years running, the usual trickle down of Europa League places seemed a certainty at the start of last season. But the unthinkable happened, with PSG and the rest of the top four all failing to win either of the domestic cups. Rennes beat PSG in a wild Coupe de France final and Strasbourg clinched the Coupe de la Ligue, beating Guingamp on penalties, to end the hopes of a handful of sides who had been expecting to qualify for Europe by finishing fifth or sixth fifth in the league.
A repeat of this scenario is unlikely this season, which is good news for Montpellier, who are leading the gaggle of clubs hoping to squeeze into Europa League spot. The signing of last season’s standout player, dead-ball wizard Téji Savanier from bitter rivals Nîmes, could propel the traditionally defensive Michel Der Zakarian’s side into the top five (or higher) assuming the physical, bustling strike partnership Andy Delort and Gaëtan Laborde provide 25 goals again this season.
Intelligent young coach Julien Stéphan will be hoping to overcome the losses of Hatem Ben Arfa and underrated midfielder Benjamin André (to Lille) as he tries to manage a tricky Europa League schedule. Strasbourg face the same challenge under the equally astute Thierry Laurey. They might have forced their way into the top four last season had their focus not switched to the Coupe de la Ligue final towards the end of the campaign.
Patrick Vieira repeating the laudable feat of keeping a depleted Nice side in the hunt for the top six may be the best the club can hope for this season, although the protracted Sir Jim Ratcliffe takeover and the mooted return of former president Jean-Pierre Rivère and managing director Julien Fournier – whose revolutionary running of the club and scouting network had the club challenging for a league title in 2016-17 – may change that. However, time is running out to get deals done.
Bordeaux are outsiders for a top-six spot, although Paulo Sousa has done little to prove he can revitalise the underperforming club and appease a frustrated fanbase. Last season’s surprise top-six hopefuls Reims will do well to overcome to loss of centre-back Bjorn Engels (Aston Villa) and the quasi-season-ending injury to playmaker Arber Zeneli – although David Guion’s team are well drilled and will be tough to beat. The same goes for Angers, who are again likely to finish midtable, having made the most of their limited resources under the considered leadership of Stéphane Moulin.
Monaco are unlikely to face another relegation battle but they are the most difficult club to place. Their increasingly haphazard transfer policy left them relying on ill-prepared youth-team players under Thierry Henry last season (admittedly, partly enforced by injuries). It did not help that they spent €40m on Pietro Pellegri and Willem Geubbels, who were both 16 at the time, carrying injuries and unready for first-team football.
A change of direction in January to signing experienced players seemed wise but it nearly failed to keep them in the division, with Cesc Fàbregas, Naldo and Gelson Martins all offering little. They have made smart upgrades in goal (Benjamin Lecomte for Danijel Subasic) and at right-back (Ruben Aguilar for Djibril Sidibé) this summer, but there is still much to be done.
The relegation rivals
Dijon, who only stayed up last season after beating Lens in a relegation play-off, enter the campaign with the most to fear. Stéphane Jobard, the long-time assistant to previous manager Olivier Dall’Oglio and former Marseille and Roma boss Rudi Garcia, faces a tough challenge in his first senior management role. He will have to cope without midfield organiser Mehdi Abeid (who has signed for Nantes) and influential winger Naîm Silti could also be on his way.
Despite making a number of productive loan moves permanent, Amiens are also at risk without manager Christophe Pelissier, who miraculously guided the tiny club into the top flight for the first time and kept them there. Inexperienced leftfield appointment Luka Elsner – acquired from Belgian second-tier side Union Saint-Gilloise – will do well to emulate Pelissier’s success.
Nantes, meanwhile, are in disarray. Vahid Halilhodzic stepped down as the club’s coach earlier this week. His relationship with volatile president Waldemar Kita had broken down after he responded to departures this summer by saying he needed “eight or nine players, most of them starters”.
Long-time strugglers Toulouse will again be relegation candidates having lost influential centre-back Christopher Julien to Celtic, lively Sweden forward Jimmy Durmaz to Galatasaray. The team’s talisman, Max Gradel, is also attracting interest from overseas and adequate replacements are yet to arrive.
Nîmes, who were already a little porous before the pivotal Savanier left for Montpellier, are a long way from gatecrashing the top half for a second time. Metz, who were promoted as Ligue 2 champions, have kept their squad together and added some standout performers from the second tier, leaving them well placed to survive.
There is also cause for optimism for Brest, who finished as runners-up in Ligue 2 last season behind Metz. Their home form at the pokey Stade Francis Le-Blé will be central to their chances under forward-thinking manager Dall’Oglio. Although both promoted sides are likely to spend the season looking over their shoulders.
by Adam White