Ligue 1 intrigue surrounds France’s ‘other 19’ with PSG still worlds apart

Since the takeover of Paris Saint-Germain by the Qatari government’s investment fund in 2011, the club have failed to win the Ligue 1 title only three times. The first was in their maiden season under their new ownership, when a dogged Montpellier took advantage of the tumult caused by the mid-season dismissal of Antoine Kombouaré to bring home an unlikely first top-flight title. Monaco in 2017 and Lille in 2021 similarly seemed to catch lightning in a bottle, riding the play of clever experienced strikers (Radamel Falcao, Burak Yilmaz) working in tandem with unheralded youngsters (Kylian Mbappé, Jonathan David) to edge their more moneyed competitors.

Otherwise, as the jibe so often goes, Ligue 1 has been a “one-team league”, albeit not to the level of the Bundesliga or Serie A, given the recent hegemony of Bayern Munich and Juventus. PSG won the last title at a canter, keeping Marseille at arm’s length even as the spectre of Mbappé’s potential departure and (another) galling Champions League exit provided no shortage of distractions.

But now, with another season getting under way in France on Friday, it feels ironclad that PSG will again win the title after appointing the former Lille manager Christophe Galtier and the sporting director Luís Campos who helped to mastermind the past two occasions in which they failed to finish top. Campos played a role in constructing not only that vibrant Monaco side but also Lille’s champions, unearthing unheralded gems such as Reinildo Mandava and Sven Botman on the heels of the impressive development of Fabinho and Bernardo Silva in the principality.

“If you can’t beat them, join them” is perhaps better rendered as “if you can’t beat them, buy them” in PSG’s case in acquiring Galtier and Campos. PSG were also heartened by Mbappé’s decision to extend his contract. The Paris-born player will be joined by what appears to be a canny trio of young signings in Vitinha, Hugo Ekitiké and Nordi Mukiele, a deliberate move away from adding more experienced players such as Sergio Ramos and Georginio Wijnaldum. The plan is to form a team that can grow and mature with Mbappé, hopefully convincing him to further continue his adventure in the capital.

PSG should benefit from Galtier’s proclivity for balancing defensive rigour with a decent level of attacking play, and they appear to have addressed issues of depth, with Ekitiké and Mukiele able to operate across multiple positions. Easily caught on the counter at times last season under Mauricio Pochettino, PSG may not evince a level of PlayStation football going forward under Galtier but they appear far better equipped for success in Europe.

The intrigue remains high over who will succeed in the battle for European places. As many as eight clubs – Monaco, Marseille, Lyon, Rennes, Nice, Strasbourg, Lille and Lens – could have designs on Europe, and others may be a little uneasy about the league trimming to 18 teams after the season. Four teams will be relegated, and there may be a stronger emphasis than ever on attacking play, if the transfer market is anything to go by.

Monaco and Takumi Minamino will hope to be the best of the rest.
Monaco and Takumi Minamino will hope to be the best of the rest. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Reuters

As things stand, Monaco and Lyon are the leading contenders for the top three. The loss of Aurélien Tchouaméni is big for the Monegasques but the young Belgian Eliot Matazo has impressed in a holding role through pre-season and the arrivals of Breel Embolo and Takumi Minamino mean they will be more dangerous after nine wins in their final 10 matches to come third last season.

Lyon are trying to improve through a mix of old and new. The returning Alexandre Lacazette, who has looked particularly sharp in pre-season, and a not-yet-fit Corentin Tolisso have the club’s DNA, no small matter for a team who have always underscored the importance of their academy. The new majority shareholder, John Textor, an American who has stakes in Crystal Palace and the Brazilian side Botafogo, has shown a willingness to smartly invest . He has also added the experienced Argentinian left-back Nicolás Tagliafico to replace Emerson, and the former Caen youngster Johann Lepenant gives decent depth. Questions remain over the futures of Lucas Paquetá, the highly touted youngster Rayan Cherki and Houssem Aouar but not having to juggle European football should see Les Gones in good stead.

It is likely to be the opposite for Marseille, who must juggle a Champions League return with a squad that appears decidedly weaker at the time of writing. The departures of William Saliba, Boubacar Kamara and Luan Peres have stripped much of the defensive solidity that became a hallmark in the second half of the season.

That trio were also versatile, allowing Jorge Sampaoli to experiment tactically – something his replacement, Igor Tudor, seems unwilling to do. OM have made some canny signings – Jonathan Clauss was perhaps the league’s best right-back last season, despite what fans of Achraf Hakimi would have you believe, and Nuno Tavares is an upgrade on Sead Kolasinac at left-back – but it is difficult to see Marseille having as successful of a season as they did last year under Sampaoli, when they also reached the Europa Conference League semi-finals.

Rennes were frustrated to have been pipped to third by Monaco but are rolling the dice with Bruno Génésio’s attack-minded play once more, having brought in the promising young Belgian Arthur Theate and Tottenham’s Joe Rodon to shore up a defence that struggled at times in the few matches for which Nayef Aguerd was absent. However, with the Moroccan having decamped for West Ham and the steely midfielder Jonas Martin also gone, questions remain about the Bretons’ solidity.

Jonas Martin celebrates a goal for Rennes last season
The influential Jonas Martin has swapped Rennes for Lille. Photograph: Jeremias Gonzalez/AP

Nice will play with largely the same side that also sputtered at end of the season, but with Lucien Favre back at the helm. Kasper Schmeichel is probably a downgrade from the underrated Walter Benítez in goal, and Dante is another year older. Even with the promising Mattia Viti arriving from Italy, more will be required from an attack that struggled at times, despite an abundance of talent. Favre is capable of overseeing that as a coach – evidenced by his previous spell at the club – but there are more than a few questions about cohesion here, to say nothing of contending with the Conference League.

Lille have looked to quietly be growing in strength under Paulo Fonseca. Their attack looks more potent with a fully fit Rémy Cabella and the new signing Mohamed Bayo, and with no European football they could be a dark horse for the top six.

Nearly men Lens and Strasbourg have more or less held serve, with Jimmy Cabot arriving as Clauss’s replacement on the wing for Lens and a pair of promising if unproven strikers joining in Adam Buksa and Loïs Openda. Strasbourg may yet lose the influential Ludovic Ajorque, but Hwang Ui-jo as his rumoured replacement would be only a slight downgrade. Expect both sides to be dangerous in any given match but to fall slightly short.

In terms of the relegation battle, a well-constructed Toulouse look a far cry from the team that circled the drain for several years before relegation, and are unlikely to go back down. Fellow promoted sides Auxerre and Ajaccio are not on the same level, though, and it is hard to see their summer parsimony resulting in anything other than the drop. Likewise for Clermont – who will struggle without Bayo – and Angers, Gérald Baticle’s side having lost Angelo Fulgini, Cabot, Mohamed-Ali Cho and a raft of veterans who had been there since promotion seven years ago.

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As to sides who could surprise, Montpellier have added Wahbi Khazri and Arnaud Nordin from relegated Saint-Étienne, adding a bit more sparkle to their attack. Reims’ signing of Japan’s Junya Ito could see the former Genk player turn more than a few heads.

With the stakes higher than ever in France, and several teams having invested heavily to avoid the drop or jockey for what appears to be a fairly open race for Europe, this season looks to be as exciting as ever for Ligue 1’s “other” 19 teams.

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