Lille celebrate their title success

Lille’s thrilling league and cup double last season marked what looks like the beginning of a new era in French football. Not only did Rudi Garcia’s little club from the north win trophies playing exciting and positive football, they also firmly banished the idea that the country’s big boys could always expect to have it their own way.

Lille’s team – featuring Edin Hazard, Gervinho and Moussa Sow – was so much more entertaining than pedestrian Marseille, inconsistent Paris Saint-Germain, and inadequate Lyon and Bordeaux, that it was frankly embarrassing for the supporters and owners of France’s traditional powerhouses. Which tees up the intriguing prospect that the French top flight could see an adventurous new spirit take hold this term.

In a country where caution and keeping it tight at the back have been the traditional modus operandi, there’s now a real chance that coaches will decide that sending teams out to entertain and attack could perhaps be the best way to both win matches and keep the tills ringing. After all, what supporter or marketing manager wants to be associated with a negative brand?

Lille proved that you don’t need massively deep pockets…but there’s no doubt that they help. To that end, Paris Saint-Germain should be an interesting proposition as the new campaign gets under way. Having bought a 70 per cent stake in the club, the Qatar Investment Authority has the financial clout to revolutionise the underachieving capital club’s fortunes. Despite finishing fourth in Ligue 1 last season, coach Antoine Kombouare’s PSG are still a long way from being anything like a serious European contender, but as the sole top-flight club in a city of almost 12million inhabitants there is clearly huge potential. The financial muscle has already prised former player Leonardo out of the hands of Internazionale to become director of sport, while there is also talk of former Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti replacing Kombouare.

Could PSG become France’s Manchester City? It’s entirely possible, but reconstruction on the pitch won’t happen overnight, especially since wise old heads Gregory Coupet, Ludovic Giuly and Claude Makelele
all said goodbye at the end of last season. The club has already shown what its wealth can do with the signing of Lorient striker Kevin Gameiro, who was supposedly a dead cert for Valencia until the 11th hour, and highly-rated Rennes goalkeeper Nicolas Douchez. But there will surely be far bigger names arriving as the PSG revolution gathers pace.

Marseille have been relatively quiet while all this has been happening to their biggest rivals, but with coach Didier Deschamps having committed to the club, after it looked as if he might have been off to Roma, stability rather than shock waves might be just what l’OM needs.

Lyon, meanwhile, really had no choice but to get rid of the dour Claude Puel following a third season without a trophy and massive supporter unrest. His replacement, the former Arsenal player Remi Garde, steps up from within the club and has promised to combine an attractive game with steely resilience. It will be interesting to see if the walk matches the talk.

And it’s managerial changes that have been at the forefront of Ligue 1 movement of late. Bordeaux parted company with the hapless Jean Tigana, who walked out in May after less than a season in charge, with Sochaux boss Francois Gillot replacing him after leading his former club to an impressive fifth-place spot last time out. Les Girondins limped home in seventh place and will need more decent players to come in alongside Nicolas Maurice-Belay, who also arrives from Sochaux, especially as France skipper Alou Diarra has moved to Marseille.

Replacing Gillot at Sochaux is the club’s former midfielder Mehmet Bazdarevic, who returns at the age of 50 after managing Grenoble. Sochaux have lost key Senegal defender Jacques Faty and will need to recruit wisely to maintain last season’s progress.

With a bigger squad Rennes might have mounted a decent title challenge last season. And how they must regret having let Sow join Lille, given that they managed a paltry 38 goals in the entire campaign, compared to Lille’s 68. They also lost Douchez to PSG and midfielder Sylvain Marveaux to Newcastle United, so new names will be vital.

Toulouse didn’t start any fires last season, but they easily absorbed the loss of talisman striker Andre-Pierre Gignac to Marseille. President Olivier Sadran is a canny operator who always gets a good financial return
on any sales, sanctioning incoming players only if they represent serious value for money. With Moussa Sissoko the only one of a talented group who looks to have negotiated an exit, and coach Alain Casanova having extended his contract by two years, it will be steady as she goes for TFC.

Auxerre welcome former Paris Saint-Germain boss Laurent Fournier to the club as he replaces the Nancy-bound Jean Fernandez. But with skipper and former France midfielder Benoit Pedretti having joined champions Lille you wouldn’t be surprised to see l’AJA having a bit of a “banana skin” season.

Saint-Etienne have also lost a key player, Dimitri Payet, to Lille and will have difficulty replacing their “petit general”. Former Liverpool striker Florent Sinama-Pongolle arrives from Sporting Lisbon on a season’s loan, but that won’t have Les Verts fans exactly jumping up and down while their stadium is being rebuilt for the 2016 European Championship.

Lorient have lost their two best players, Gameiro and Morgan Amalfitano, to PSG and Marseille respectively, but will be desperate to continue an unbroken six-year stint in the top flight. Valenciennes, meanwhile, who finished one spot below Lorient in 11th last season, have ceded coach Philippe Montanier to Real Sociedad in Spain. New boss Daniel Sanchez (ex-Tours) will start work in the new 25,000-seater Stade du Hainaut with the sole objective of at least equalling last year’s performance.

Fernandez’s first task at new club Nancy will be to replace attacking midfielder Julien Ferret, who has left for Rennes. With former boss Pablo Correa also departing after 16 years’ service in various capacities, Ligue 1 stability is all that’s required during this campaign.

Montpellier found it impossible to repeat their heroics of the previous season and ended in 14th place. It’s hard to predict whether they can yo-yo again, but staying in the top flight will be the priority for flamboyant president Louis Nicollin.

Caen might well be this season’s dark horses. In coach Franck Dumas they have a shrewd tactician who has built a good young squad that looks likely to be reinforced with veteran striker Pierre-Alain Frau due to arrive from Lille.

Brest went off like a bullet from a gun last season, but slipped back to 16th place by the end of the season. They will be hoping for progress, but shouldn’t get their hopes up too high.

South coast Nice survived by the skin of their teeth back in May and promptly let 12 players leave.
But will coach Eric Roy replace them with a bit more class? Veteran midfielder Camel Meriem is first through the door after leaving relegated Arles-Avignon, but they might need more than that to sleep easy in their beds.

And what of the Ligue 1 new boys? Surprise Ligue 2 champions Evian are looking to old heads to keep them in the top flight and with a budget of £23million thanks to the support of giant food producer Danone they might stand half a chance. Ajaccio look as if they’ll struggle with a budget of £13m, but the club’s stated policy of bonding around their Corsican heritage will clearly help in an “us against the world” kind of fashion. And finally Dijon, who happen to boast Chelsea and France winger Florent Malouda as an investor, will be hoping to make it a first Ligue 1 season to remember. It would have helped their cause, of course, if their best player and last season’s top scorer in division two, Uruguayan striker Sebastian Ribas, had not turned down a lucrative new contract to join Italy’s Genoa.

What seems abundantly clear amid all the pre-season comings and goings is that it’s all up for grabs in 2011-12, which should lead to another exciting campaign of top-flight French football.

By Howard Johnson

Key dates
Season starts:

August 6, 2011

Winter break:

December 22, 2011

to January 13, 2012

Season ends:

May 20, 2012