French champions have strengthened over the summer and pulled themselves further away from the opposition.
At the risk of enraging supporters of clubs other than Paris Saint-Germain, it is hard to avoid the fact that domestic football in France these days pretty much starts and ends with what happens in the capital.
Once again, Ligue 1 looks like being nothing more than a parade ground for PSG to win a fourth consecutive title; there really is nothing to suggest any of the top flight’s 19 other clubs will be able to offer anything remotely approaching serious competition.
Last season PSG pulled off an unprecedented domestic quadruple, bagging the Champions Trophy, the League Cup, Ligue 1 and the French Cup. And this in a season when UEFA’s Financial Fairplay rules were still forcing the club to operate under some pretty harsh sanctions. PSG were allowed to buy one player for a fee of up to €60million before the start of the season and had to reduce their Champions League squad to 21 players after exceeding permitted financial losses in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
However, last month UEFA did an about-turn and opted to relax their sanctions, supposedly in an effort to make more teams competitive and make sure more clubs are attractive to investors in the future.
“We are just evolving from a period of austerity to one where we can offer more opportunities for sustainable growth and development,” said UEFA president Michel Platini. But what he didn’t mention in his seemingly magnanimous statement, was the fact that before the relaxation both PSG and Manchester City – the two clubs whose challenges to Europe’s footballing elite have been most effectively bankrolled – were seriously considering legal challenges to the Fairplay rules as anti-competitive and a restraint of trade.
PSG had also been limited to a €60m transfer budget for this summer and they had already committed €12m to completing the signing of full-back Serge Aurier from Toulouse following a loan period. But although this sanction no longer applies, which is clearly good news for PSG, things might not be quite as rosy as they might first appear.
According to a recent report in the Le Parisien, UEFA’s overall relaxation of the rules may not be as advantageous to PSG as they might first have thought. The newspaper has apparently seen documents that, if approved, would change the playing field yet again.
All clubs currently involved in European competition are obliged to run their financial affairs with maximum losses over the last three seasons of €45m. However, there could soon be clubs that would be exempt from this constraint, beginning with the current season. If a club is now taken over by a new investor, and if these new investors have their business plans accepted by UEFA, then they will be allowed to exceed the aforementioned maximum losses for up to four seasons and will not be sanctioned for failing to comply. The problem is that these exemptions will only apply to new investors. So if these ideas are adopted by UEFA, then clubs such as PSG and Manchester City, while having many of their personal restrictions lifted, will find themselves punished once again, this time for being “first movers” into a new space.
The fight between PSG and UEFA will clearly go on in the short term as both parties look to find a workable solution, but relations between them are still
very strained, despite the club’s more comfortable financial situation right now.
Still, with more money freed up for immediate transfer movement into the French capital, there have been a number of wild rumours doing the rounds as to who will be heading to the capital before the transfer window closes.
Among the more outrageous suggestions was the idea that Cristiano Ronaldo could be tempted to swap Spain for France. The Real Madrid star’s arrival, according to reports, depended on PSG being able to offload striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Coach Laurent Blanc will doubtless have been spending plenty of time wrestling with his single trickiest recruitment problem: who can really help the club move towards the avowed goal of winning the Champions League? Can they attract the kind of players – right now – who can genuinely mount a challenge for Europe’s biggest prize?
Blanc will hope that Angel Di Maria, a far more realistic target than Cristiano Ronaldo, falls into that category. The Argentinian put a terrible season at Manchester United behind him by signing in a deal worth €63m. The transfer made him, cumulatively, the world’s most expensive player, having cost a total of €179m in fees during his career.
Aside from Di Maria, Blanc’s only new signing of note was that of goalkeeper Kevin Trapp from Eintracht Frankfurt to offer some competition to Salvatore Sirigu. The only big name heading out of the door, was midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who returned to England, joining Crystal Palace, after an unhappy 18 months with the club.
There are still an awful lot of loose ends that need to be tied up if PSG are to start their latest campaign in a state of genuine readiness for Europe.
Blanc knows that winning the domestic title – and winning it well – is the absolute minimum requirement for the club’s ultra-ambitious top brass. Especially when transfer movement elsewhere in France has been tepid, to say the least.
Although they have signed defender Karim Rekik from Manchester City and Argentinian winger Lucas Ocampos from Monaco, Marseille lost three key players in Andre-Pierre Gignac (Tigres), Giannelli Imbula (Porto) and Dimitri Payet (West Ham United). To add to their problems, coach Marcelo Bielsa quit after an opening weekend defeat at Caen.
Monaco themselves have lost Dimitar Berbatov to retirement, while Radamel Falcao has been sent out on loan again, this time to Chelsea. So it’s hard to see coach Leonardo Jardim pushing his team further than their third-place finish last time out.
Which leaves Lyon as the only other serious outfit in the ball park, and they finished a not-inconsiderable eight points behind PSG last season in second place.
Financial restrictions or no financial restrictions, it really is head-scratchingly difficult to see anyone who can truly rattle the PSG cage. With three consecutive Ligue 1 titles behind them and with a squad that easily outstrips anything else France has to offer, it would be a very brave man indeed who would bet against them making it four in a row.
By Howard Johnson