Ligue 1 provided one of the closest and most surprising title races in Europe’s elite leagues last season. This weekend, action begins once again. Still, the question remains whether PSG can regain the title.
All Change at Lille
Christophe Galtier’s Lille wrote themselves into history with their unexpected triumph last season. Jonathan David’s winner in Paris and a Burak Yilmaz-inspired comeback win in Lyon set them clear at the top. When both scored first half goals against Angers on the final night of the season, the Ligue 1 title was theirs. However, the financial situation surrounding Lille meant the triumph was swiftly followed by departures. Galtier left for Nice, while goalkeeper Mike Maignan and Boubakaray Soumare were both sold for big fees. Even then, more names could depart before September.
Former Guingamp and Bordeaux manager Jocelyn Gouvennec is the new man in charge, having won the Coup De France back in 2014 and is best known for doing well with limited resources. If nobody else leaves, Lille still have a fine squad with a solid central defensive partnership between Jose Fonte and Sven Botman. Jonathan Bamba and Renato Sanches are huge talents in midfield and in attack David has enormous potential after improving through last season. The key player, however, is Yilmaz. He hit 18 goals last season, so the question is whether the 36-year old can have another season of magic.
Those expecting a new-look Lille to give up their title without a fight were given plenty of food for thought in Sunday’s Trophee Des Champions clash with PSG. A sumptuous strike from Portuguese midfielder Xeka gave Lille the first half lead, while the backline kept PSG at bay en route to claiming the first trophy of the new season.
The Empire Strikes Back?
The Parisian aristocrats didn’t take kindly to having their noses tweaked by Lille. PSG were on a run of seven titles in eight years but in truth their awful start to last season saw them playing catch up as Lille simply refused to go away and without a sold out Parc-de-Princes PSG’s imposing home form didn’t frighten their rivals.
Mauricio Pochettino arrived in January to revive a flagging campaign and the new coach did get his team motoring in the Champions League by thumping Barcelona and gaining revenge for the 2020 final by beating Bayern. However, a semi-final defeat to Manchester City ended PSG’s hunt for the trophy they crave and at home they couldn’t chase down Lille. Pochettino did win his first major trophy in management when goals from Mauro Icardi and Kylian Mbappe secured the Coupe De France crown.
After rumours of a possible return to North London, Pochettino has extended his contract in Paris and PSG have added yet more talent. Signing Italy number one Gianluigi Donnarumma on a free is an inspired deal that closes out the one possible weakness in the PSG team. Also arriving on frees are Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos and former Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum. PSG spent big too, acquiring right back Achraf Hakimi from Italian champions Inter for €60million, as well as adding defensive midfield cover in Porto’s Danilo Pereira. The bulging squad may be strengthened further with the possible arrival of Manchester United’s Paul Pogba and a certain number ten.
Pochettino has arguably the best squad ever assembled in Ligue 1 history and PSG will start the season as huge favourites. However it remains to be seen how long it will be before capacity crowds are allowed into the Parc-de Princes and it was their home form that let PSG down last season. There’s also the issue of Mbappe who suffered a disastrous Euros with France and is attempting to bounce back from his first major career blow.
Monaco are Back
It’s been a difficult few seasons on the French Riviera since that incredible young team snatched the 2017 title for AS Monaco. The team that shook Europe that year was swiftly pillaged by Football’s big spenders and after a credible 2018 season, Monaco were almost relegated in 2019 and only managed to finish ninth the year after. Last season however brought a return to the sharp end of French football, with Monaco pushing the top two hard for most of the season. Their title hopes fell apart in May with an extraordinary 2-3 defeat to Lyon that featured five red cards. They went on to lose the Cup Final to PSG but a nervy final day draw with Lens proved enough to secure third place and a return to the Champions League playoffs.
The man responsible for the turnaround was former Bayern Munich manager Niko Kovac and having won the double in Germany the Croat is looking to add French trophies to his CV. Kovac was quick to add Bayer Leverkusen forward Kevin Volland in attack to play behind Wissam Ben Yedder, the duo responded with 40 goals. Monaco don’t lack for creativity either with Aleksandr Golovin, winger Gelson Martins and veteran playmaker Cesc Fabregas in the team. Their defence needs to tighten if Monaco are to challenge for the title after conceding 42 goals last term, to that end Kovac has recruited former Bayern charge Alexander Nubel on loan to compete for the goalkeeping gloves and young defensive midfielder Jean Lucas has joined from Lyon.
Au Revoir Memphis
Lyon were expected to be PSG’s principle title rivals last season and they did take their challenge deep into the season, but that epic defeat to Lille ended their championship hopes and final day defeat at Nice saw them miss out on the Champions League. It was sad way for Memphis Depay to end his four and a half years with Lyon, where the Dutch international rehabilitated his career after his Manchester United disaster. Depay finished as the top scorer last season with 22 goals before heading to Barcelona.
Lyon could look to Moussa Dembele to fill the void left by Depay, but the 25-year-old has a strained relationship with coach Peter Bosz and spent the second half of last season on an unsuccessful loan to Atletico Madrid. Islam Slimani arrived at Lyon as Dembele headed to Spain in January. The Algerian forward managed just four goals in half a season but is hugely talented and can lead the line.
Like Monaco, they did concede goals in comparison to the top two, but Lyon did make a smart addition to their defence in veteran Damien Da Silva, who may partner Jason Denayer. The heartbeat of this team remains new captain Houssem Aouar, while creative Brazilian Lucas Paqueta will buzz around behind the main striker. If Slimani can find the form he teased during his brief stint with Monaco, Lyon will be dangerous.
Marseille to Bounce Back?
In the end, Marseille salvaged a respectable fifth place finish and Europa League football from a traumatic campaign. Protests against club president Jacques-Henri Eyraud came to a head when fans invaded the training ground in February, shortly after the resignation of manager Andrea Villas-Boas. Eyraud was gone by the end of the month and in came Pablo Longoria as president and former Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli.
There’s been a flurry of transfer activity at the Stade Velodrome with big money arrivals in midfielder Gerson and centre back Leonardo Balerdi. The emphasis has been on young talent and Arsenal loanee William Saliba will hope to break into the first team whilst Barcelona graduate Konrad de la Fuente is one to watch in attack.
Dimitri Payet remains the main man for Marseille and Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik was hugely impressive after arrving from Napoli in January and will be looking to add 20 goals this term. Marseille will be looking to break back into the top three and fans will eagerly await the first Le Classique encounter with PSG in October.
Lens Lead the European Hopefuls
Last season brought mixed emotions for RC Lens. Having won promotion back to Ligue 1, Lens produced a hugely encouraging seventh placed finish, just falling short of European qualification and a story to match the redemptive seasons of Leeds in the Premier League and Stuttgart in the Bundesliga. The only problem was of course, their bitter local rivals Lille winning the title, being thrashed by Lille just two games from the end of the season in a match many saw as the last meaningful hurdle for Lille to clear. Winger Gael Kakuta impressed on loan last season and made his stay at Lens a permanent deal this summer, but key defender Loic Bade left for Rennes. The key man remains midfielder Seko Fofana as Lens push for a European place this season.
Stade Rennais snatched the final European qualification slot from Lens last season, and will play in the newly formed Europa Conference League. It was compensation for a hugely disappointing season for Rennes who began the campaign in the Champions League but swiftly saw the departures of star players Edouard Mendy and Raphinha to the Premier League. Manager Juilen Stephan was fired in March after a dismal run and replaced by Bruno Genesio. Rennes did bloody PSG noses with a late season 1-1 draw and a late season rally brought respectability to the season. Genesio has been boosted by big signings in Lens’ defender Balde and exciting winger Kamaldeen Sulemana who it is hoped will fill the creative gap left by Raphinha’s sale. Rennes remain a steady team in defence and in Jeremy Doku and Serhou Guirassy there’s goal scoring talent. If they are to challenge for a Champions League place fans will hope Eduardo Camavinga is still at the club come 1st September.
Nice got a major boost this summer with the arrival of title winning manager Galtier from Lille. Galtier has wasted little time in reshaping the squad with the additions of young talents Calvin Stengs and Jean-Clair Todibo and a steady midfield presence in Mario Lemina. Justin Kluivert is another eye catching arrival and Galtier will be looking for more from Kasper Dolberg after he impressed in attack at this summers Euros with Denmark. Nice will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing season and under Galtier’s stewardship are this season’s wildcard and have the advantage of no midweek European distractions.
History has taught French football never to write off 2012 champions Montpellier. It would be huge surprise if they repeated that feat but they do have a talented front pair in Andy Delort and Gaetan Laborde whilst veteran defender Mamadou Sakho could prove a savy signing. Claude Puel’s Saint Etienne are another who could cause a shock with teenage stars Lucas Gourna-Douath and Adil Aouchiche two to watch whilst striker Wahib Khazri is always a handful.
Metz could prove another team to watch. Defender Pape Sarr enjoyed a breakout season last year at the back and Algerian international Farid Boulaya remains a dangerous forward whilst striker Ibrahima Niane is back from long term injury. Six times champions Bordeaux had a major arrival at the end of July in long time Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic. The new boss has had little time with his new charges and has few star names to work with but an experienced leader in former France international Laurent Koscielny and a promising midfield talent in Toma Basic.
Stade Reims suffered a disappointing 20-21 season, finishing just two points clear of relegation. New coach Oscar Garcia arrived in June but saw top scorer Boluaye Dia depart for Villarreal. Defender Andrew Gravillon arrived on loan from Inter, but Garcia has will be mostly looking to his under 23 prospects to Reims back up the table.
Troyes were promoted as Ligue 2 champions, winning the division by seven points last season. The new boys have strengthened in the transfer window with midfield trio Renaud Ripart, Metinho and Mama Balde added to the squad and Liverpool graduate Yasser Larouci added at left-back. Troyes will again be looking to veteran striker Yoann Touzghar to lead the attack and the first game back in Ligue 1 is a tasty home encounter with PSG.
Clermont joined Troyes in winning automatic promotion and in doing so will grace Ligue 1 for the first time. Veteran manager Pascal Gastien has a mirco budget but does have Ligue 2 top scorer Mohamed Bayo looking to prove himself at the top level and Clermont won’t lack for team spirit or passion.
Eight time champions Nantes danced with danger last season, falling into the playoffs. In the end they survived after a two legged 2-2 draw with Toulouse saw them stay up. Nantes went through three coaches last season with Antoine Kombouare eventually leading them to safety. Kombouare will look to build on a positive end to last season and has added highly rated goalkeeper Alban Lafont from Fiorentina. Midfield star Imran Louza departed for England but key man Ludovic Blas remains along with striker Randal Kolo Muani who got the vital goals in the playoffs.
Other clubs for whom survival is the first order of business include Angers, whose final day loss to Lille wrote the final page of last seasons title battle. Goalkeeper Paul Bernardoni was hugely impressive last season, whilst the dangerman in attack will be Angelo Fulgini. Brest avoided the relegation zone by a single point last time and lost highly rated left-back Romain Perraud this summer. New manager Michel Der Zakarian has a tough assignment but will be relieved star player Romain Faivre is still around.
Former Rennes boss Julien Stephan has a new job at Strasbourg and will be looking to steer a talented squad away from trouble. Key to Strasbourg’s hopes will be striker Ludovic Ajorque who hit a career best 16 goals last season whilst striker partner Habib Diallo proved a useful foil. Finally there’s Lorient who also avoided the drop by just two points. Striker Terem Moffi enjoyed an impressive debut season in France, changes have been minor this summer but Brazilian right back Igor Silva arrives to help sure up a leaky defence.
Top Six: 1. PSG, 2. Monaco, 3. Lille, 4. Marseille, 5. Lyon, 6. Nice
Relegation: Clermont, Brest
Relegation Playoff: Lorient
Top Scorer: Mauro Icardi (PSG)