Paris Saint-Germain may have had it all their own way last term, cantering to a first league crown since 1994 with a massive 12-point advantage over Marseille, but it will be a huge shock if this season’s title ends up as another one-horse race.
The reason, of course, is the return to the top flight after a two-year absence of Monaco – a club whose Russian owner, Dmitry Rybolovlev, has pockets every bit as deep as the Qataris at PSG.
Rybolovlev has serious aspirations of winning the league this season and he made his intentions crystal clear in the transfer market.
Midfielders James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho arrived from Porto for €45million and €25m respectively, while France midfielder Jeremy Toulalan – who won two titles with Lyon before moving to Spain in 2011 – returned home from Malaga. Yet those signings were dwarfed by the arrival of Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid.
Depending on what you read and who you believe, the undisclosed fee for the Colombian is believed to be anything from €45m up to nearer €60m once third parties have had their share, but it was less the money than the statement of intent that had jaws dropping worldwide. At 27, Falcao is not only at the peak of his powers, he can justifiably lay claim to being the best striker in the world after scoring a staggering 34 goals in just 40 games for Atletico last season.
With the domestic prospect of PSG v Monaco and Edinson Cavani v Falcao this season, you would have thought everybody in the French football industry would have been delighted with two such heavyweight clashes. After all, isn’t it better to have some genuine competition in Ligue 1? Isn’t it better to have three of the world’s best goalscorers playing in France (Cavani, Falcao, Ibrahimovic)? And doesn’t this extra spice make Ligue 1 a more attractive proposition for those who buy footballing TV rights around the world, which in turn helps to fill the coffers of all the Ligue 1 clubs?
You would have thought that was a no-brainer, but not everyone is enthusiastic about Monaco’s arrival back in the top flight. A number of club owners are up in arms about the fiscal advantages the club enjoy from being based in the principality, where tax and social charges are minimal in comparison to France.
This perceived lack of a level playing field – which didn’t seem to bother people quite so much before a Russian takeover – has so incensed certain parties that the French league (LFP) has put forward a proposal that from the start of the 2014-15 season all its clubs must have their headquarters located in France for tax purposes. The matter has gone to court, with Monaco claiming that the LFP plan violates principles of free movement and free competition.
There are those who would seem to have a valid point when asking when has football ever been a level playing field.
PSG’s runaway title success shows that the rest of Ligue 1 pre-Monaco weren’t even remotely competitive because of the Parisians’ Qatari money. And the fact that a compromise was mooted whereby Monaco would pay ¤200m over a period of years to “encourage” the other clubs to drop their objections suggests this is little more than a shakedown.
Rybolovlev certainly sees it that way and is digging his heels in, willing to fight the LFP tooth and nail in the French courts. Relations between the two parties, meanwhile, will have further degenerated after the disciplinary commission of the LFP handed Monaco a two-point deduction (with a further point suspended) at the start of this season, plus a sanction of one match to be played behind closed doors, after fans let off fireworks and invaded the pitch following a game against Le Mans in May.
The new season also has the added ingredient of PSG losing their coach, Carlo Ancelotti, to Real Madrid in the close season and replacing him with former national boss Laurent Blanc.
It’s fair to say that the general reaction to the appointment of “Le President” was lukewarm and it remains to be seen how he will rework his side to see off the threat of Claudio Ranieri’s Monaco.
For the rest of Ligue 1, the transfer market’s reopening in the summer was a relatively quiet affair. Lille sold midfielder Dimitri Payet to Marseille for €10m, while their highly rated left-back Lucas Digne was involved in a tug of war between (you guessed it) PSG and Monaco – with a reported monthly salary offer of ¤270,000 seeming to tip the scales in the favour of the top-flight newcomers.
One player bucking the current trend for all things Monaco is 21-year-old defensive midfielder Nampalys Mendy. Despite the club desperately trying to keep hold of the youngster, Mendy opted to leave the Ligue 2 champions and join Nice, who finished a highly creditable fourth in Ligue 1 last season under Claude Puel.
While player movement may have been slow, the same can’t be said for coaches. With Rudi Garcia heading for Roma, Lille have brought in former Montpellier coach Rene Girard, while veteran Jean Fernandez was handed the reins at Montpellier. Philippe Montanier returned from Real Sociedad in Spain to take over at Rennes and former Italy striker Fabrizio Ravanelli was installed at Ajaccio.
Finally, welcome back Nantes, one of the country’s most successful clubs, who return to the top flight for the first time since 2009. However, although they may have won eight Ligue 1 titles, this is one promoted club who have a long way to go if they want to challenge for the championship again any time soon.
By Howard Johnson
Season starts: August 9, 2013
Season finishes: May 18, 2014
• For all this season’s Ligue 1 fixtures, go to www.worldsoccer.com/world-service