PARIS: After a summer dominated by talk of Neymar’s possible arrival and the potential departure of Kylian Mbappe, the new French season begins this weekend with Monaco the defending champions but Paris Saint-Germain again favourites.
Ligue 1 has long suffered in comparison with Europe’s other leading domestic leagues, while its clubs have often performed poorly in the Champions League.
But a PSG swoop for Barcelona and Brazil superstar Neymar would be a game-changer for French football and its image.
It would also cement the capital club’s status as the favourites to dominate at home after last season’s stutters allowed a thrilling young Monaco side to take the title to the Mediterranean principality.
However, Neymar or not, Paris start 2017-18 as the team to beat.
Their Qatari owners have kept faith in coach Unai Emery but have appointed the Portuguese Antero Henrique, once the transfer guru at Porto, as sporting director.
On the field one Neymar has already joined, Dani Alves rejecting Pep Guardiola and Manchester City for the French capital.
With Marco Verratti and Edinson Cavani among those still there, Emery believes PSG can sweep the board.
“If we can add a collective strength to the individual talent we have and a winning mentality, then we can target winning everything, even the most difficult competitions like the Champions League,” he told sports daily L’Equipe last month.
At first glance, Monaco’s longer-term prospects hinge on their chances of persuading 18-year-old gem Mbappe to stay amid reports of a 180 million-euro ($213 million) move to Real Madrid.
The Russian-owned club scored 107 league goals last season but they have already sold Benjamin Mendy and Bernardo Silva to Manchester City, Tiemoue Bakayoko to Chelsea and Valere Germain to Marseille.
Coach Leonardo Jardim and skipper Radamel Falcao are among those to have signed new contracts, and they have signed a pearl in Belgium midfielder Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht.
They have rebuilt and thrived after selling their best players before, although Monaco’s Russian vice-president Vadim Vasilyev has been keen to play down expectations.
“We need to target the top three. It will be very difficult to defend the title but we will do everything we can. You have to be ambitious,” he said.
– Foreign investment –
Most clubs still cannot come near competing with the unedifying wealth of the English Premier League, even if significant money is being injected into French clubs by outside investors.
Marseille are preparing for their first full season under the ownership of American tycoon Frank McCourt.
They have lost last season’s top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis but have France star Dimitri Payet as captain. A top-three finish and Champions League qualification is their aim.
There are Chinese investors at Lyon, who boast a magnificent stadium and yet have lost their two best players, Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal and Corentin Tolisso to Bayern Munich.
Sales have seen over 100 million euros swell the coffers, but that will surely not help OL get into the top three or go all the way to the Europa League final, which they will host.
“It is true that we have lost important players, but I think the recruitments we have made are of great quality and should help us achieve our objectives,” insists coach Bruno Genesio.
Last season’s surprise package was Nice, helped by American and Chinese investors as they finished third.
They have kept star striker Mario Balotelli and highly regarded coach Lucien Favre, although they may struggle to repeat that showing.
There are exciting developments at Lille, whose owner from Luxembourg has enacted a revolution in the far north and has managed to attract the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa as coach.
The Argentine returns to France two years after walking out on Marseille and a horde of fascinating signings have followed him.
Bielsa is a man of few words but with him in charge Lille are certain to be worth watching. And his first game in charge will see him come up against Claudio Ranieri, the Italian now at Nantes just a year after his heroics at Leicester City.