france flagAfter the marvellous fairy tale that was the David of Montpellier pipping the Goliath of Paris Saint-Germain to the French league title last season, the question on everyone’s lips is whether the south-coast minnows can again tweak the noses of the capital city aristocrats. Lightning tends not to strike twice, of course, so it would be an even greater miracle if Rene Girard’s side were able to land back-to-back titles.

The difference between the two clubs is summed up by the new striker they have each signed for the new campaign. PSG have paid £24million
for Napoli’s highly rated Argentinian international Ezequiel Lavezzi, who was on the shopping list of any number of Europe’s big boys, while Montpellier shelled out just £2.2m for Lavezzi’s unknown compatriot, Emanuel Herrera from Chileans Union Espanola.

In addition, PSG have spent big bucks on Milan defender Thiago Silva and his clubmate, Sweden striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But as Montpellier proved last season, regardless of how big or otherwise the names in their team, they have nothing to fear but fear itself. Well, fear and the poaching of all their prize assets, of course. So far it looks as if president Louis Nicollin has managed to fend off the wolves, with striker Olivier Giroud – Ligue 1’s top scorer last season – the only key player having left so far.

Nicollin has even managed to bring in a couple of decent players – Toulouse skipper and defender Daniel Congre, and Nice’s former Lyon midfielder Anthony Mounier – so whatever happens Montpellier will be no pushovers. In all truth it’s hard to see Girard’s side repeating last season’s feat, but it would be a huge surprise if they were not up at the business endof the table throughout the campaign.

Lille appear to be the most likely to mount a serious challenge to PSG for the title. The 2011 champions have been busy in the close-season transfer market. Having lost their most talented player, Eden Hazard, to Champions League winners Chelsea and seen Joe Cole return to Liverpool at the end of his loan, boss Rudi Garcia has brought in Chelsea’s Ivory Coast striker Salomon Kalou on a free transfer and France midfielder Marvin Martin for £7.8m. The diminutive former Sochaux man has a great touch and can really see a pass,
so he’ll certainly be an asset to his new club in a season in which they also move into a new 50,000-seater stadium, the Grand Stade Lille Metropole.

Nightmare campaign

Marseille will be hoping to put a nightmare 2011-12 campaign behind them this season. The southern aristocrats finished 10th last time out, a massive 34 points behind Montpellier and 31 behind arch-rivals PSG. Beating Lyon 1-0 to win the League Cup in April simply wasn’t good enough and OM’s season was dogged by in-fighting, with coach Didier Deschamps never looking remotely happy.

It was no surprise, then, when he jumped ship in early July and quickly found a lifeboat at the French Football Federation, who gave Deschamps a two-year contract to take over the national team in the wake of a dismal European Championship and the departure of Laurent Blanc.

Deschamps’ replacement is the much-travelled Elie Baup, who seems to have lost his trademark baseball cap en route to the Velodrome. But having watched PSG getting stronger and stronger in recent times, Marseille supporters will be hoping that Baup – who has been out of work for three years since a difficult season at Nantes ended up with the club being relegated from the top flight in 2009 – can restore local pride. And quickly. With finances tight, the 57-year-old will have to be a wily operator. What is sure is that the club’s first signing of the summer, striker Florian Raspentino on a free from Nantes, will have overwhelmingly underwhelmed the fans. It’s a tough gig for Baup, no doubt about it.

Lyon’s fourth place last term under Remi Garde was a pretty satisfactory return, given that the club’s big-spending days are over for the time being. But sophomore years are always tougher and the one-time kings of French football will do well to emulate their last campaign, especially with a game-heavy programme in the Europa League to contend with.

Outside of last season’s top four, it looks unlikely that the chasing pack of Bordeaux, Rennes, Saint-Etienne and Toulouse will be able to push on.

The general belt-tightening in French football (with the exception of Paris Saint-Germain, of course) means all of these clubs have been keeping the purse strings pretty well drawn. Nobody in this group looks to have much stomach for mounting a bid for top-dog status.

It will be more interesting to see how Nice progress this time around. With former Lyon boss Claude Puel installed as coach in place of Rene Marsiglia and talk of a serious “project” now in motion, they might spring a few surprises, though it will probably be too soon to expect serious miracles.

Corsican club Ajaccio have also changed coaches, with former Brest man Alex Dupont taking over from Olivier Pantaloni. Many felt that Pantaloni had performed miracles in keeping the tiny club with a budget of just £12m in the top flight when they finished 16th last time around, but the 45-year-old decided he simply did not have the strength for another campaign and walked away.

Ajaccio will be joined by fellow Corsicans Bastia after they were promoted as champions from Ligue 2, together with Reims and Troyes.

By Howard Johnson

August 10, 2012

Montpellier v Toulouse

August 11, 2012

Evian v Bordeaux

Nancy v Brest

Nice v Ajaccio

Paris Saint-Germain v Lorient

Rennes v Lyon

Saint-Etienne v Lille

Sochaux v Bastia

Troyes v Valenciennes

August 11, 2012

Reims v Marseille