FRANCE: Ligue 1 Season Preview 2013/14

France

This season is shaping up to be a very interesting affair in France, with PSG and Monaco duking it out on stratospheric levels when it comes to spending, and some excellent young talents finding their way throughout the league. Join Andrew Davidson as he takes a closer look at all twenty teams in this, the 76th edition of the French top flight.

AJACCIO

Ajaccio are an intriguing prospect, with so many stories to draw the eye off the field, although performances on the pitch don’t often live up to the billing. Managed by former Italy and Juventus forward Fabrizio Ravanelli (pictured above), the side finished 2 points clear of the relegation places last season and could just as easily have found themselves plying their trade in Ligue 2 this year.

If it wasn’t for the aging talents of Adrian Mutu, another big name with plenty of controversy behind him, that may very well have been the case. His 11 goals proved just enough to steer the squad clear of relegation, although Ravanelli will be painfully aware of the need to bring more goals in.

His dealings in the transfer market have been low key, not surprising considering Ajaccio are leagues away from matching the big guns in the money department. Some solid acquisitions have been made for free however – Benoit Pedretti and Laurent Bonnart arriving from Lille will add experience, and in the case of Pedretti some incisive passing that may be a big bonus.

Perhaps the best news is that Mexico’s first choice goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa, remains at the club. He has been outstanding in saving the teams blushes over the past few seasons and is a safe bet to be star man again this year. Overall, the Italian coach has added quality and experience where possible, but his is a thankless task. It would take a real effort for Ajaccio to avoid another relegation scrap this season.

BASTIA

A tough year may be in store for the Corsican club, with top scorer Anthony Modeste’s loan coming to an end. His goals were the highlight of the 2012/13 season for Frederic Hantz’s side, and success will depend on if the team can provide the goals in his absence.

Wahbi Khazri remains as the clubs creative attacking force, while forwards Keseru and Gianni Bruno will be looking to provide the goals, the latter arriving from Lille where chances were thin on the ground last year.

Defensively Bastia have looked to upgrade on a very porous backline last season – one that conceded 66 goals, and was the worst in the league despite the clubs 12th place finish. Adding former France international Sebastien Squillaci, himself having a lot to prove after his disappointing spell in England, will provide some experience. Drissa Diakite may be a solid option, arriving after a poor spell in Greece with Olympiacos, but with bags full of experience from his time at Nice.

BORDEAUX

Seventh last year, and winners of the Coupe de France, Bordeaux will be saddled with another excursion into Europe this season. Last year the pressures of the Europa league appeared to go some way towards upsetting Les Girondins league form, although the loss of several key players surely did not help.

The squad is full of hard working rather than spectacular players at the moment, a mixture of those brought through the club and some old heads. Jaroslav Plasil, the Czech Republic international, remains the biggest star and most potent attacking threat.

Henri Saivet (pictured above), another player who has risen through the ranks at Stade Chaban Delmas, may be in for a breakout season with the bigger names out of the picture. All in all Bordeaux will struggle to hit the heights of previous seasons, and mid-table looks about the right level for the clubs ambitions at the current time.

EVIAN

Les Roses will face another tough battle this season, with competition around them heating up and having lost their best performer from last year in the close season. Saber Khilifa has left for Marseille, leaving Evian without last season’s top goal scorer, and permanent replacements have not been forthcoming.

Several loan signings have strengthened the squad – attacking duo Bertoglio and Escobar from Dynamo Kiev, join Modou Sougou from Marseille, while Youssouf Sabaly will join the defence from PSG where chances at first team action were thin on the ground.

Evian fans may have hoped for more this summer after the clubs run to the final of the Coupe de France last year. However, having suffered the pain of losing that final, they may well now be worried for the team’s future in Ligue Un.

GUINGAMP

Newly promoted Guingamp may find life very hard back in the top division this term. After a 2nd place finish in Ligue 2 last year, hopes will be high for survival this term, however this is a very different Ligue 1 to what the commune-based club will remember from their last visit.

Manager Jocelyn Gourvennec will have been wary of the big spending top clubs already, however the blow of losing star man Gianelli Imbula to Marseille will only have reinforced the point. The money from that sale has allowed the club to bring in some talent – experienced defender Jeremy Sorbon arrives from Caen, Younousse Sankhare from Dijon, Chateauroux striker Claudio Beauvue, and the attacking midfielder Steeven Langil from Auxurre.

Top scorer Mustaphe Yatabare will be on hand to provide the goals, however he may find chances few and far between. An uphill struggle awaits, but Guingamp will enjoy the chance to test their talents against some of the world’s best.

LILLE

An overhaul at many levels this summer at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, leaves last year’s 6th place team as something of a mystery coming into the new season.

With manager Rudi Garcia headhunted by Roma, the club have looked to Rene Girard to steady the ship. And that may just be what the former Montpellier man will do – Lille’s exciting, attacking line up may see some steel added to its repertoire.

This of course will be aided by the big name departures. Dimitri Payet, Benoit Pedretti and notably Lucas Digne have all flown the nest, and this will severely hamper the Lille style of play. Girard has made some solid, if not Earth shattering, signings to replace the loss, and will hope to follow in the tradition of Lille bringing through young, homegrown talent.

The biggest news is that Danish international Simon Kjaer (pictured above) has made the move from Wolfsburg and will be vital to Lille’s back line.

Lille may well find it hard to keep up with the PSG’s and Monaco’s of the world, but it would be surprising to see them fall too much lower than the top 6-8, and they have a nice transfer kitty available to strengthen further should the right deals come along.

LORIENT

Lorient excelled last season, producing an 8th place finish on the back of a best ever season from striker Jeremie Aliadiere. The former Arsenal mans 15 goal haul in the league was an unlikely return from the player who has previously failed to deliver on some exciting early promise in his career.

Winger Benjamin Corgnet has been snapped up by Saint-Etienne, however the club has thus far managed to hold on to other talents. Alain Traore especially has attracted much attention, but Lorient seem intent on keeping the Burkina Faso international in their ranks.

The clubs strength remains their home form, where they picked up points in 16 of their 19 games last year. The Stade du Moustoir has become something of a fortress, and they will look to replicate this again this term. Manager Christian Gourcuff has added Cameroonian international Vincent Aboubakar to the ranks this term, arriving from Valenciennes to bolster the clubs striking options. He is joined by 19 year old left-back Raphael Guerreiro from Caen.

In an ordinary season, 8th may well be achievable again for Lorient, however with the oil-rich spending frenzy currently engulfing the league, that may be a bridge too far this year. Lorient should push for a top 10 place, however.

LYON

Five years ago Lyon were the toast of French football, with seven straight championships, and some fair showings in the Champions League to their name. Last season however, they finished 16 points behind leaders PSG, as close to 10th place Toulouse as they were to the title. Add to that the emergence of Monaco this season and Lyon find themselves in the rare position of underdogs, unable to spend their way out of trouble like their foreign-owned rivals.

The good news is Lyon have a squad stacked with potential – from the exciting Clement Grenier, recently signed to a new contract, to young striker Yassine Benzia, and the graduate of the legendary Olympique Lyonnais youth academy Maxime Gonalons (pictured above), who continues to improve with each season in his holding midfield role.

Speculation has been rife regarding the forwards at Lyon all summer long, with a long and drawn out saga over Bafetimbi Gomis still unresolved at the time of writing. Lisandro López has already left for Al-Gharafa, leaving Jimmy Briand as the most experienced hitman at the club.

Gael Danic has been brought in from Valenciennes, where he made 101 appearances, and may offer some much needed competition for the creaking Steed Malbranque, while defender Henri Bedimo has joined from Montpellier.

If Lyon’s younger talent can step up to the challenge this may be an exciting season for the appropriately nicknamed “Les Gones” (The Kids), however failure to replace the lost goal getters may prove costly – especially when you consider the firepower that the top teams in France are currently amassing. A top 6 finish should, nevertheless, not be in doubt.

MARSEILLE

L’OM have been busy in the transfer market this close season, hoping to pick up quality at a reasonable price to allow them to stay in contention with the big spenders they find themselves playing with today. A squad of decent depth (which, let’s not forget, finished 2nd last term) has been bolstered with some attacking talent – Evian’s Saber Khilifa arriving after a 13 goal showing last season, is joined by French Under-21 international Dimitri Payet (pictured above) from Lille. Payet is an exciting signing, and will look to build on a breakout season with Lille last year, in which he netted 12 goals and came up with 13 assists.

The team struggled for goals last year, but managed to be a solid and dependable team, thanks to a tough backbone. They will miss the energy and hard work of Joey Barton in the engine room, however there is a sense that the downturn in controversy this year will be as much of a benefit to the team as a whole.

The key man is, as in the last few seasons, will be Mathieu Valbuena. If he can continue his dependable, and exciting creative play, there is no reason why Marseille cannot be challenging for a Champions League place yet again this season. However, they will have to remain focused and coach Élie Baup may have to use some tactical nous to claim the scalps of Ligue Un’s nouveau riche.

MONACO

A season preview for a newly promoted team, such as Monaco, usually runs the same way – must be careful, grind out results, fear of relegation. But then again it’s very rare that a newly promoted club spends close to €150 million on new acquisitions in the close season.

Among that huge outlay is the reported €60 million for Radamel Falcao, last season’s top scorer in La Liga. The Colombian sensation was hot property this year when it became clear that he would leave Atletico Madrid, with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City all said to be interested. Monaco swooped however, offering a huge package (no doubt some enticing tax breaks).

Falcao is joined by Porto pair James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho, who signed for a combined fee of 70 million Euros and will add some superb talent to the midfield. In total, 12 new singings were made, while 14 full squad players were shown the door as the team prepares for its first season back at the top.

The defence was improved with some older legs in the form of Ricardo Carvalho and Eric Abidal, who also arrive from La Liga, and Jérémy Toulalan will sit comfortably in defensive midfield, bridging the gap between the old heads at the back and the explosive talents in front.

Monaco will be a hugely interesting team to watch this year. The massive sums being spent will suggest that a challenge to PSG’s domination is on its way; however commentators have noted that the signings have served to strengthen a first team squad that was playing in Ligue 2 last year. The strength in depth may just not be there this term to sustain a title challenge, however Monaco will have no worries about their future – and things could change dramatically again when the January transfer window rolls around.

MONTPELLIER

Montpellier had a big come down of a season last year, from champions to a 9th placed finish in 12 long months. The reasons were plain for all to see – stripped of their best assets, the club simply could not replace the talent that was leaving and a top half finish was reasonable.

The interesting question now is will Montpellier settle down into a solid mid-table team, or have the drive to push on and reclaim some of that lost emphasis. Their dealings in this summers’ market suggest a further slide, losing Younes Belhanda and being unable to hold on to coach Rene Girard. Former Nancy coach Jean Fernandez steps into the role and has his work cut out for him.

18 year old Morgan Sanson has arrived from Le Mans, alongside winger Djamel Bakar from Nancy and striker Victor Montano from Rennes. The three will add depth to a squad which was looking thin on the ground towards the end of last season. Remy Cabella remains with the club, despite reported interest from Arsenal, and will hope to make inroads again as an attacking threat.

All told Montpellier have a fair squad, and their passionate home support will always make it difficult for teams coming to the Stade de la Mosson, however a mid-table finish may be the best they can hope for this year.

NANTES

Nantes have prepared for their return to top flight football by bringing in some excellent South American talent in the forms of Cichero and Oswaldo Vizcarrondo. They are joined by fellow Venezuelan Fernando Arsteguieta, who impressed at Nantes last year on loan, and has made the permanent move to France from his hometown club, Caracas. The striker has 5 international caps to his name, and 1 goal, and will look to add some firepower to the Nantes attack.

The club have managed to keep a hold of the core of a team which finished 3rd in Ligue 2 last season. They have also added USA international Alejandro Bedoya (pictured above, middle) to the squad who impressed for Helsingborgs in both the Swedish and Europa League’s last year.

Coach Michel Der Zakarian will hope to emulate some of the famous Nantes teams of the past, and recall the spirit that has made the club one of the most successful in France’s history. The task may be a huge one, but Nantes are a good outside bet to survive the step up in class this season.

NICE

Nice overachieved greatly last term, in the eyes of many, and will be looking to replicate that form going into this season. A 4th place finish was certainly a dream come true for the Cote d’Azur club, and nobody is under any assumptions that it will be easy to repeat. The added bonus/requirement of the Europa League may also be a factor – and it is often the case that qualification for Europe’s second-tier competition severely disrupts the league form of those obliged to participate.

Nice will look forward to that challenge, however, and will be quietly confident of their own chances. Claude Puel has once again built an excellent team, not least in unlocking the talents of Dario Cvitanich. The 29 year old has never quite reproduced his early form at Banfield since his move to Europe; however 19 league goals last term proved he can be an effective front man in a team that knows its strengths.

New signing Nampalys Mendy is a big addition – the midfielder finding himself unwanted at promoted Monaco, despite his excellent performances in their Ligue 2 season. Getting him on a free transfer may be a real bargain for Nice.

If Nice can negotiate the tricky Europa League conundrum, and find the form of last season again, they will provide some excellent entertainment in this year’s league, and will look to record a top 10 finish as a minimum.

PSG

Last season’s champions come into the new year having lost virtually none of the personal who brought the club its first title since 1994. The biggest loss is, of course, the manager – Carlo Ancelotti’s long drawn out exit for Madrid being followed by a circus in which several high-profile names turned down the chance to replace him. Eventually, Laurent Blanc was unveiled as the successor and has come in for some criticism since. Lacking the experience of Ancelotti and some of the other names mooted, Blanc will have plenty to prove, however the man is slouch – he took Bordeaux to unexpected heights during his reign there and he will be fired up for the challenge after all of the negative talk.

And behold the wonders at his disposal! An already bulging squad of talent has been improved upon yet again – most notably Edison Cavani, arriving from Napoli where he notched 78 goals in just 104 appearances. His price tag may look steep, but with a true striker now to lead the line, his arrival may just allow PSG’s talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic to drop deeper into the areas where he is most effective. If the two can strike up an understanding, then expect goals galore from Les Parisiens this season.

In midfield, competition is fierce – with former record signing Javier Pastore needing to put in the performances to justify his price tag, and the flourishing Lucas Moura looking better every week during last season. Brazilian defender Marquinhos has also been brought in, at the cost of €32 million from Roma, and he will look to match compatriot Thiago Silva’s sublime form last season.

All in all, despite Monaco’s excess and Marseille’s bluster, PSG are still the team to beat – both in the transfer market, and on the field.

REIMS

Last year Reims produced the 6th best defensive record in the league, despite finishing just 5 points clear of relegation. Their troubles began and ended in attack, where they failed to score in 17 matches and were only bettered in their lackluster shooting efforts by Brest – who were relegated.

Manager Hubert Fournier has moved quickly to remedy the teams striking dearth, signing Israeli international Eliran Atar from Maccabi Tel-Aviv. Atar notched 22 goals in all competitions last season, and has 2 excellent goals against PSG in a previous Europa League encounter under his belt.

It will be interesting to see if he can provide the firepower Reims require. If not, it may be a very long season for this historic club.

RENNES

13th place last term came as a huge disappointment to Stade Rennais. The club have been on the up for the past few years, and a 6th place finish in 2011/12 had manager and fans alike showing some optimism. However, a truly awful run of home form (6 wins at the Stade de la Route de Lorient) left everyone wishing for the campaign to end.

The biggest change in personal has been the signing of highly-rated Nelson Oliviera from Benfica. The 21 year old has arrived on loan for the season, with an option to buy should things work out well. After showing much promise coming off the bench at Benfica, Oliviera has made an impact on the international scene but was struggling to find a permanent place for his club. This could be his big chance to shine, and that can only help Rennes chances this term.

Another solid signing has been that of Sylvain Armand from the talent-laden PSG ranks. He will likely add something extra to the Rennes defence, which has lost some of its bigger names in recent times.

Overall, Rennes should bounce back from last year’s travails – anything less than a top half finish would be a disaster for Phillippe Montanier’s men.

SAINT-ETIENNE

Saint-Etienne were in fine form last season, notching 60 goals and finishing just 4 points outside of the Champions League places. A little more steel towards the end of the year may have seen them finish within the top 3, and that is cause for excitement for the club.

The loss of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund may sting for a while; however the €13 million fee has been put to some use in strengthening the squad. Manager Christophe Galtier will hope to add some more talent up front, but overall the squad looks balanced and will be buoyed by its successes last term.

One attacking option hat has been added is the Toulouse player Franck Tabanou (pictured above). The player has appeared for France at Under-20 and Under-21 levels, and for a 24 year old has some good experience at threatening Ligue 1 defensives, having made138 games for his former club. Benjamin Corgnet and Lynel Kitambala will also hope to add something to Les Verts’ ranks.

Aubameyang will certainly be missed, and without another true recognised striker, the pressure may be too much for 33 year old Brazilian Brandao to take on. However Saint-Etienne will look for goals from midfield, especially the wings, and may surprise a few people still. A repeat of 4th place is a little unrealistic; however a push for a Europa League place and a good cup run may not be out of the question.

SOCHAUX

Sochaux have steadily gone about their own business as usual this pre-season, promoting youthful talent from within and only adding the talents of Julien Faussurier to the current squad.

Many of the talents that have been ushered through the ranks in recent times have been the subject of rumours yet again this summer – Arsenal, as ever, linked with one or two players with no real interest being made public. Sebastien Corchia, Ryad Boudebouz and defender Jerome Roussillon have all attracted attention in the press; however the club will be happy to have kept a hold of such talents for the time being.

Another season of development in store then, with the hope that the younger members of the squad can lift the team above last term’s 15th place finish.

TOULOUSE

Financial troubles have hampered Toulouse’s summer preparations yet again this year, with president Olivier Sadran stating in no uncertain terms that bad times may be ahead. The situation has since been alleviated somewhat, however it is at the expense of the playing staff. Franck Tabanou has joined St Etienne for an undisclosed fee, while 6 other players have been shown the door, including Umut Bulut who has joined Galatasary in his native Turkey for a fee of around €2.7 million.

The biggest departure of all, however, is that of Etienne Capoue. The midfielder, who excelled last season in helping the team reach a 10th place finish, was off-loaded to Tottenham Hotspur for €11 million. This cash may come in handy off the pitch, but it remains to be seen if any significant investments can be made on it.

Toulouse still maintain a strong first team, with several young talents who may be on the cusp of a breakthrough. It remains to be seen whether they can maintain the club’s good form of the past few years, or if they might sink a little further in the table by the end of the season.

VALENCIENNES

Valenciennes have become the incarnation of stability in Ligue 1 in recent years – never ones to flirt with relegation, but never really threatening a top half finish, they maintain a healthy mid-table finish year upon year. This is due to some crafty work in the transfer market, and some excellent management off the field.

Last year that stability was not always present on the field – the team made a habit of producing stirring comebacks, however couldn’t seem to help themselves from getting into those positions to begin with. The loss of defender Nicolas Isimat-Mirin to Monaco in the summer will not have helped their cause.

It’s difficult to predict where Daniel Sanchez’s team will finish this term. The additions of Jean-Christophe Bahebeck (PSG), Tongo Doumbia (Wolves) and Eloge Enza Yamissi (Troyes) will add some depth, but won’t be enough to mount any serious assault on the top half of the table. Another sub-11th finish should be on the cards.

Andrew Davidson

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