France's Ligue 1 kicks off today, and outside of watching Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paris Saint-Germain make fools of their opponents week after week en route to a third league championship in three years, you may be thinking "What's the point?"
This league has been bad for a while, and today, it's the worst of Europe's top six leagues, behind those in Spain, England, Germany, Italy, and Portugal. Many—most, even—of Ligue 1's teams are bad in the purest sense, in that they don't pose any challenge to the top clubs in France. But there's beauty in the badness. In fact, the lack of excitement near the top is one of the most appealing things about Ligue 1.
Stick with us. There are a lot of really bad teams, but they're more or less equally bad teams. Ligue 1 is famous for is its amazing relegation battles, and a lot of the fun in the league is watching evenly-matched, bad teams struggle not to finish the season in the bottom three. Only a couple of years ago, the now super-rich AS Monaco were relegated on the final day of the season, but if they had beaten Lyon and other results went their way, they could have finished as high as 14th.
Continuing the trend, Evian did it again last season, beating Sochaux away from home on the very last day of the season, a defeat to Les Lionceaux would be cast them down to Ligue 2, but the 3-0 sent them up to 14th place. It's madness.
So without further ado, here is our Ligue 1 preview, which will walk you through the many bad teams, the few good ones, and Paris Saint-Germain.
VERY BAD TEAMS FIGHTING FOR THEIR LIGUE 1 LIVES
If you're skeptical as to the lack of quality in France, some experts are predicting as many as 10 teams could be involved in the relegation battle. That's half the league! Evian will be there or there abouts. The side named Evian Thonon Gaillard—who don't play in either Evian or Thonon, but in the lovely city of Annecy—have lost their top goal scorer Kevin Berigaud. They've also signed Gianni Bruno from Lille, and will be hoping midfielder Daniel Wass is still around come the 1st of September; if not they will be certainties for the bottom three.
New boys Caen will struggle to stay in the top flight when their best recruits are a reject from Marseille (Florian Raspentino) and a failed French striker who went to Belgium and actually got worse (Sloan Privat). Guingamp will fly the flag for France in the Europa League after winning the Coupe de France, but they are not good enough to fight in the continental competition as well as their domestic one, and even with Newcastle United's Sylvain Marveaux in the squad on loan, they will struggle to keep afloat.
Though they finished second in Ligue 2 last year, earning promotion to Ligue 1, Racing Club de Lens only found out on July 29 that they will be allowed to play in France's top league. Their Azerbaijani owner, Hafiz Mammadov, blamed a bank holiday for missing funds, but then never bothered to pay his staff after that. Without making a single signing of any kind so far this transfer window, it's not looking good.
Out of all the newly-promoted sides, FC Metz are the best placed to stay up. They have solid players in forward Diafra Sacko and winger Yeni N'Gbakoto, and manager Albert Cartier's faith in his young stars will be a huge factor this season. You'd also have to include FC Nantes in the relegation mix; they've had to endure a transfer embargo this summer, and this has forced them into permanent deals for former Swansea striker Itay Shechter and VfB Stuttgart deadweight Johan Audel, both of whom couldn't hit water if they fell out of a boat.
THE POOR BASTARDS STUCK IN MIDTABLE HELL
In the promotion/relegation setup most soccer leagues utilize worldwide, there's tension throughout, glory to be had at the top, and desperation at the bottom. But the middle of the table is where ambition goes to die. It's here where you can find French sides that either frustrate because they should be better than they are, or the sides that are just a bit better than the scrapers down the bottom.
Toulouse are the epitome of this. Just when you think they are about to build on something, they'll get thumped 5-0 at home to midtable rivals Stade Rennais. Losing Serge Aurier to PSG is a huge blow, but they have Colombian star Abel Aguilar to pull the strings in midfield, and 23-year-old forward Wissam Ben Yedder hopes to build on the 16 goals he scored last season.
It's probably a little generous to expect Nice to stay safely up when they finished 17th last season, but they were only two points from 14th and, seven from the top ten. With players like Eric Bautheac, Valentin Eysseric and young striker Neal Maupay, they need to do better. The departure of Colombian keeper David Ospina, however, could be a killer blow if others don't recover from injury quickly.
Champagne corks were popping when Stade de Reims were in contention for a place in the Europa League during the second half of the season, but they fizzled out too quickly and finished 11th. It was still a relatively impressive season, and an improvement from 14th place in 2013. But this summer, they've lost manager Hubert Fournier, and new head coach Jean-Luc Vasseur is untested at this level. Without a recognized goalscorer, it could be a long season.
More and more French sides now have a French international legend in charge these days. Now Bastia have recruited the services of former Chelsea hero Claude Makélélé, giving him his first job as manager. It will be a real test for Makélélé, as his side are void of any real stars, and he'll be charged with the task of passing off Djibril Cissé as a competent football player.
Losing the creative Rémy Cabella to Newcastle will leave a gaping hole in Montpellier's attack this season. More than finding someone who can score 14 goals from midfield, they'll also need one someone who can match his influence on general play, the excitement he brings, and his suspect hairstyles. Kévin Bérigaud transferred in from Evian to play up front, and manager Rolland Courbis will also ask for more from Anthony Mounier and Karim Aït-Fana.
After 11 years under legendary coach Christian Gourcuff, who took over the Algeria post this summer, Lorient will start their new era with an exciting African strike force. Cameroonian Vincent Aboubakar will try to improve on last year's 16-goal tally, and he's joined by Ghana's Jordan Ayew.
The younger of the Ayew brothers finally has a chance to escape André's shadow, and under Sylvain Ripoll, he will have the opportunities to silence his critics and prove that he's worth the hype.
CLUBS PLAYING FOR EUROPEAN QUALIFICATION
Because of the league's rank in Europe, France has six slots for Europa League or Champions League qualification. The top three qualify for next year's Champions League; the fourth goes to the Europa League. If any of the top four teams win either Coupe de France or Coupe de la Ligue, France's domestic tournaments, then another slot would open up for the fifth- and potentially sixth-place team. For a team to have a chance at European qualification (and the money and prestige that comes with it), it would behoove them to finish in the top six. Here's who we think have a shot.
8) Girondins de Bordeaux
Another 1998 World Cup winner takes up the reigns of a Ligue 1 club, as Willy Sagnol is leaving his post as French U-21 manager to become the new boss at Bordeaux. Although the results under previous Francis Gillot were steady over the last three years, the football would bore you to tears. Sagnol's job is to turn this side into an attractive prospect so that in 12 months' time when the brand new stadium opens, people would actually want to, you know, buy tickets and watch the games.
Bordeaux still have Grégory Sertic to pull the strings from deep. The French midfielder contributed 10 assists last season, and at just 25, he is slowly becoming the leader of this side. The signing of midfielder Wahbi Khazri from Bastia adds more flair and creativity to the attack, and if he can provide the ammunition for the 6-foot-4 Cheick Diabaté, there is a chance they could push for a spot among the top six and possible Europa League qualification.
7) Stade Rennais
Philippe Montanier would have hoped for a better outcome in his first season at Rennais. Twelfth place sounds OK on paper, but at season's end, Rennais were just six points out of the relegation zone.
This summer, the former Real Sociedad coach has completely changed the squad; 16 players have transferred to the Rennes side or returned from loan, while 13 have left.
Montanier's future, then, will likely hinge on all this upheaval was worth it. None of newcomers are real stars, so it looks like the season's success will hinge on how much they can get out of talented youth like Paul-Georges Ntep, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Cédric Hountondji. All of this means that Rennais's season could and might go spectacularly wrong, but it has the potential to build into something very special.
Les Verts are a strange side, yet have some of the best fans in France. Stade Geoffroy-Guichard will be full with an amazing vocal support most weeks, but the side they have to cheer on doesn't quite match the passion of the fans.
When they lost speedster Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Borussia Dortmund and midfield anchor Josuha Guilavogui to Atlético de Madrid in 2013, they were meant to struggle. But under the charming manager Christophe Galtier, Saint-Étienne got better. They finished fourth last season, and just two points shy of third-place Lille.
This summer, Saint-Étienne have failed to strengthen properly, and rumors persist around a loan deal for Ricky van Wolfswinkel. They may as well buy a three-legged donkey; it would cost less and provide more of a threat upfront.
Without the proper reinforcement, the likes of Romain Hamouma, Benjamin Cornet and Mevlüt Erdinç will be asked to perform above expectations if Saint-Étienne are to maintain a top-five finish. At this point in the warm-up, it looks unlikely.
5) Olympique Lyon
Former Arsenal defender and Lyon coach Remi Garde has moved on this summer. In his place comes the last year's Reims manager, Hubert Fournier. Fournier's challenged with keeping his new side competitive, but by leaning on Lyon's youth academy rather than making any big signings.
French striker Bafetimbi Gomis has left on a free transfer to Swansea but the biggest news is that striker Alexandre Lacazette, playmaker, Clement Grenier and defensive midfielder Maxime Gonalons remain in the Rhone valley. They make up a sneaky-stacked Lyon spine, and Jordan Ferri, Yassine Benzia and Samuel Umtiti make an exciting young core.
The problem will come when things go sour, or when Europa League games start piling up and wearing on this team. That's when you need experience and old heads to guide the fearless, inexperienced youth and manufacture points on tired legs. Lyon are sorely lacking in the old head department. Steed Malbranque, 34 and not all that good in his prime, is one of the senior members of the squad. One cool fact about Steed is that he was once involved in a situation that saw him leave Saint-Étienne for free because he just didn't fancy it.
A big positive, however, could be the return of striker Mohammed Yattara to Lyon this season. He scored 11 goals on loan at Angers last season, and this preseason he performed well, and could be just the man to replace Gomis in the front line.
Defensively, they have been strengthened by the additions of Lindsay Rose and Christophe Jallet, who respectively add youth and experience to Fournier's back four. The midfield diamond worked for Garde, and the new manager looks set to continue with it.
It could—could—go very well for Lyon. There is the chance that this season could quickly go downhill. Either way, it'll be a wild ride.
4) Lille OSC
Up north, Lille OSC have already had a good start to their season. After beating Grasshoppers of Zurich in the third qualifying round, they're just one step away from qualifying for the Champions League group stage.
The flip side to that success is that René Girard's side will most likely have to play in the Champions or Europa League. This is generally great news, but with the squad that Girard has under his disposal, Lille will struggle to successfully compete in both domestic and European competitions. Two years ago, when Lille made it to the Champions League, they ended up finishing in sixth place in Ligue 1 with a squad that was definitely better than the current crop. It could be a tough season for Les Dogues.
What Girard has going for him, though, is one of the best defenses in France. Lille kept 21 clean sheets in Ligue 1 last year, and from their solid back line, they built a terrific season. Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was phenomenal, just missing out on breaking Ligue 1's record for games without conceding a goal after rattling off 12 clean sheets in a row. (His streak was finally broken, after nearly three months, thanks to an own goal in a win.) Here are his highlights, which are foolish.
Dane Simon Kjær teamed up with Marko Baša to create a center back pairing; only PSG conceded less last season. Lille's whole back four cost less than €10 million to buy, and Girard deserves all the credit for making Lille the defensive power that took them all the way to third place last season.
Salomon Kalou remains at the club for the time being, constantly linked with a move back to England. Unfortunately for Lille and Kalou, though, it seems that teams have actually done their scouting, and refuse to touch him or his wages with a 10-foot pole. Don't be fooled by the 16 goals he scored last season.
Lille need goals and the man they hope will get them is Belgian striker Divock Origi, who was bought from Lille by Liverpool this summer and immediately loaned back to the club. The 19-year-old should get more minutes this season, and will hope to add to the five goals he scored last campaign.
With the strong defense and Origi eager to to impress, Lille could finish in the top three again, but the European commitments could see them drop one or two places.
3) Olympique de Marseille
Bielsa, Bielsa, Bielsa. That's the word of the moment around Marseille this summer. Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has taken over at Marseille for this season, and his arrival alone has sparked excitement all over the port city in the south.
Signs from preseason are very positive, and he already looks to be getting much more out of the very talented squad than previous managers Élie Baup and José Anigo were able to, and this looks like the kick in the ass that the OM squad seriously needed.
Mathieu Valbuena has been shipped off to Dynamo Moscow even though he had a wonderful World Cup. His performances should have led to a move to a bigger club for the 29-year-old, but the threat of having to play under Sam Allardyce at West Ham United or Harry Redknapp at Queen's Park Rangers found le petit velo on the first plane to Russia. It'll be very interesting to see how a Marseille team not led by Valbuena plays in the league. Eight years have passed since OM gave Valbuena his debut, and it will be a strange sight not seeing the star as part of the squad.
Romain Alessandrini and Michy Batshuayi join from Rennais and Standard Liege, respectively; the latter had a wonderful season in Belgium and has started preseason very well.
Inspired by the former Athletic Bilbao coach, Marseille are well set-up for this season. They may not do as well as their second-place finish two years ago, but it will be hard for them to do worse than last season's sixth-place campaign.
2) AS Monaco
It has not been the summer that everyone expected in Monaco. After last year's blockbuster summer, the money of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev was supposed to bankroll the Monégasque side to a position of parity with Paris Saint-Germain. It hasn't quite gone to plan.An extended court case with his now ex-wife has cost the oligarch around €3 billion as part of the settlement, splitting his net worth in half.
This summer, Monaco have only made one permanent signing: 19-year-old Tiemoué Bakayoko from Rennais. He'll only play a small part this season behind the likes of Geoffrey Kondogbia, Jérémy Toulalan and João Moutinho.
Toulouse defender Aymen Abdennour comes in on a permanent deal after spending the second half of the season on loan at ASM. Monaco now have around three weeks to replace James Rodríguez after his €81 million move to Real Madrid. He was Monaco's best player last season, and it'll take two or three players to fill his void. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be arriving.
The vice president has called Colombian striker Radamel Falcao untransferrable, and that's the best news this summer so far. Monaco and new boss Leandro Jardim needs a superstar goalscorer to keep this project alive. Without El Tigre heading their front line, the team could sink all the way out of Champions League qualification, and Monaco's rebirth would be deemed a failure.
THE TITLE RACE
1) Paris Saint-Germain
Last season, Paris Saint-Germain only lost one game at home, on the day they won the league.Barring the impossible this year, there's not a single team in the French league that can keep pace with PSG over 38 matches. They have strength in depth all over the pitch, and even their second string could give this league a run for their money.
Two of their substitute defenders were at the World Cup. The other, Marquinhos, will soon be in Brazil's squad. They have their €25 million Newcastle United hero, Yohan Cabaye, sitting on the bench and players such as Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore and Lucas Moura all fighting to get a game. It's a great problem to have for Laurent Blanc, but bad news for the rest of the league.
The title race is already over, but this was never just about Ligue 1. PSG are chasing Champions League glory, but they've hit a gigantic stumbling block in UEFA's Financial Fair Play.
Financial Fair Play in soccer was put in place this year to limit clubs spending in order to keep clubs from going bankrupt, and to even the playing field between the haves and have-nots, if only a tiny bit. PSG have oil money straight from Qatar, which is why they've been shoving money down rivals' throats for some of the best players in the world since 2011.
This summer, FFP came back to bite them. They were fined €60 million, their Champions League roster was sliced from 25 entrants to just 21, and they had to suffer limits to their transfer window not all too different from a salary cap.
To show they learned their lesson, PSG went to sign Brazilian center back David Luiz from Chelsea for €50 million. This is foolery. There is no way he was worth that much money, but when you are PSG and UEFA tell you how much you can spend, you need to give them a big middle finger by spending that exact amount on just one player.
And now, their rash decision to splash their load on Sideshow Bob has come back to bite them in the ass. They were chasing Ángel Di María from Real Madrid, a player that would actually make them better in the Champions League, but they now can't afford to bring him on a permanent contract.
PSG are trying to juggle things around to make it happen, but negotiations are ongoing. Their embarrassment of riches makes sure they are the top team in France. Now they are looking to upgrade to attack the Champions League as the rest of Ligue 1 may as well just hand them the title before Christmas.
And there you have it. There's PSG, and there's everybody else. Let's complain in the comments.
Andrew Gibney started following France's Ligue 1 about 10 years ago and it is an obsession that led him to falling in love with the country and the football. As a typical Glaswegian, he once walked 106 miles in seven days, from Sheffield to Lille, just to avoid paying for the Eurostar. Gibney is the founder and editor of French Football Weekly. Follow him on Twitter: @Gibney_A.
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