FFT.com's resident French football expert James Horncastle continues his preview of the upcoming Ligue 1 season...
Who will be the dark horse in the title race?
Arguably last yearÃ¢ÂÂs most entertaining team, Rudi GarciaVÃ¢ÂÂs Lille, are expected to build on their fourth place finish.
The Mastiffs missed out on Champions League qualification after a 2-1 defeat to Lorient on the final day of last season and are expected to go one better if not challenge for the title over the next nine months.
However, rather than throwing caution to the wind, Rio Mavuba is playing down expectations.
Ã¢ÂÂIf we reach the same level of play as last year, it will already be good,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂThere are two or three teams who are on another level. It depends on us. If Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux arenÃ¢ÂÂt as good, we can challenge them. However, if they are 100 per cent, it will be beyond us.Ã¢ÂÂ
Lille were the strongest attacking force in Ligue 1 last year. They averaged 3.3 goals a game in all competitions between November 28 and January 16, which contributed in no small part to them being FranceÃ¢ÂÂs top scorers. Ã¢ÂÂLast year, we fought to break records in terms of goals scored and points gained, and you canÃ¢ÂÂt break records every year,Ã¢ÂÂ Garcia said.
Hazard and chums could be a good outside bet for the title
But Lille have managed to keep their best players. Gervinho, the Ivory Coast international striker, wondered if it was Ã¢ÂÂthe moment for me to leaveÃ¢ÂÂ amid reported interest from Liverpool. But the clubÃ¢ÂÂs president Michel Seydoux slammed the door shut, albeit in accordance with his views on French philosophy and Feng Shui.
Ã¢ÂÂGervinho wonders about himself, and we wonder about our future. These are great existential questions,Ã¢ÂÂ Seydoux said. Ã¢ÂÂEveryone tells me that there are exceptional offers for him, but my telephone mustnÃ¢ÂÂt be working. I am very Zen.Ã¢ÂÂ
Perhaps the biggest boost to LilleÃ¢ÂÂs chances of being a veritable cat amongst the pigeons this term comes in the form of Eden Hazard, who announced his intention to stay at the club earlier this summer. Ã¢ÂÂI feel that the most important thing for me is to keep learning and to acquire experience,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂLeaving for a big club only to sit on the bench doesnÃ¢ÂÂt really motivate me.Ã¢ÂÂ
The Belgian playmaker has the potential to be the star of this season. In fact, Franck SauzÃÂ©e, the Marseille legend believes this could really be HazardÃ¢ÂÂs year. Ã¢ÂÂWhat a shame Eden canÃ¢ÂÂt play for France,Ã¢ÂÂ he cried.
Who will be the surprise package?
ItÃ¢ÂÂs unlikely any of the newly promoted teams will match MontpellierÃ¢ÂÂs exploits last season when they came up from Ligue 2 and finished fifth. RenÃÂ© Girard is hoping for a repeat of that success, although his desire to do well in Europe may derail their campaign. Ã¢ÂÂWe fought to have the right to play in Europe and for this reason we will not take the competition lightly,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂWe know that Europe is dangerous for a club like ours, but that mustnÃ¢ÂÂt be an excuse.Ã¢ÂÂ
Christian GourcuffÃ¢ÂÂs Lorient appear the more likely to spring a surprise after last yearÃ¢ÂÂs progress-making seventh place finish in Ligue 1 even though Les Merlus have since lost key players like Laurent Koscielny and Marama Vahirua.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs easy to see why ArsÃÂ¨ne Wenger has developed a soft spot for the Brittany-based outfit. GourcuffÃ¢ÂÂs nine recruits this summer, one of which includes Arsenal youngster Francis Coquelin, have an average age of just 20. KoscielnyÃ¢ÂÂs replacement Bruno Ecuele Manga already promises much after two years with Angers.
Manga's defending is far from comic (clever, huh...?)
LorientÃ¢ÂÂs speedy play and preference for keeping the ball on the floor will be aided by the new synthetic pitch installed at the Stade du Moustoir, which could cause visiting teams problems, although their primary concern is likely to be star striker Kevin Gameiro.
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain celebrate their 40th anniversary with every intention of becoming a major force in French football again, although it will be a surprise if they do so immediately. In the last decade, PSG have only finished in the top five on two occasions, the most recent being six years ago. They were second after four games last season only to end the campaign in 13th place.
The poisonous atmosphere that surrounds the club doesnÃ¢ÂÂt lend itself to optimism either. So why should it be any different this time around? Antoine KombouarÃÂ© has made some ambitious signings this summer such as NenÃÂª from Monaco and Mathieu Bodmer from Lyon, which make PSGÃ¢ÂÂs midfield one of the best in Ligue 1 what with Claude MakÃÂ©lÃÂ©lÃÂ© putting off retirement for another year and StÃÂ©pahene SessÃÂ¨gnon moving back to his preferred position on the right flank.
MevlÃÂ¼t Erding and Guillaume Hoarau arenÃ¢ÂÂt exactly a bad pair of strikers either, giving PSG the firepower to cause a stir in Ligue 1. KombouarÃÂ©Ã¢ÂÂs side did still manage to win the French Cup earlier this year despite a lacklustre season and recently took Marseille to penalties in the Champions Trophy.
However, flattering to deceive has become a recent hallmark of the capital outfit and defensive frailties act as a disclaimer before buying into their season completely. The presence of Ludovic Giuly, PÃÂ©guy Luyindula and JÃÂ©rÃÂ©my ClÃÂ©ment on the bench also represents nothing short of a ticking time bomb.
Who will finish top scorer?
All the attention naturally focuses on Mamadou Niang, Ligue 1Ã¢ÂÂs top scorer last season with 18 goals. But there are serious doubts about whether the Marseille striker will actually still be in the Old Port by the end of the transfer window. Just last week Niang told LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe: Ã¢ÂÂI would like to be sought after. But it hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been the case. I am at a great club here in Marseille. I have a good standard of living. If I were to stay here, I wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be bothered. I will only leave Marseille for something exciting.Ã¢ÂÂ
If that interview was a come-and-get me plea, it definitely worked as the LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe-reading Turks over at Ã¢ÂÂexcitingÃ¢ÂÂ FenerbahÃÂ§e made a Ã¢ÂÂ¬6 million bid for him just a few days later. Ã¢ÂÂFenerbahÃÂ§e are a very big club, very popular in TurkeyÃ¢ÂÂ¦ I am square with Marseille,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂI have given the best of myself. My soul. My heart.Ã¢ÂÂ
Despite Marseille President Jean-Claude Dassier calling the move Ã¢ÂÂout of the questionÃ¢ÂÂ - come as it does just a matter of days before the season opener against Caen - itÃ¢ÂÂs certainly never easy to keep a player against his will. WhatÃ¢ÂÂs more, NiangÃ¢ÂÂs reputation as an attacker rather than an out-an-out goalscorer means that even if he were to stay, thereÃ¢ÂÂs no guarantee he would top the scoring charts again.
Marseille legend Jean-Pierre Papin is tipping Kevin Gameiro - the richly talented Lorient striker - following his 17-goal haul last season. Ã¢ÂÂHe is a true goalscorer, spontaneous with a trick as well,Ã¢ÂÂ Papin said.
Can Gameiro contine his goalscoring exploits for Lorient?
However, the 23-year-old is known to be disgruntled in Brittany after Lorient President LoÃÂ¯c Fery went back on his promise to let him leave after two years at the Stade du Moustoir.
An ÃÂ£8m bid from Monaco was turned down last month, partly because Lorient feel they no longer need to sell their star player after driving a hard bargain with Arsenal for Laurent Koscielny. Gameiro will miss the start of the season with an ankle injury and it remains to be seen how he copes without his strike partner Marama Vahirua who left for Nancy.
Other notable contenders include LoÃÂ¯c RÃÂ©my, the 23-year-old Nice forward who has attracted interest from Liverpool. RÃÂ©my hit the net 14 times last season often in the clutch when his side depended on him, although itÃ¢ÂÂs still unclear whether heÃ¢ÂÂll be in Ligue 1 at the end of this month. Yesterday, the former Lyon youngster admitted that he is ready to start the campaign with Nice, while also making no secret of the fact that a move to the Premier League remains the dream.
LyonÃ¢ÂÂs Lisandro LÃÂ³pez is the French ConnectionÃ¢ÂÂs personal favourite for the crown, especially now that Jimmy Briand will be paired alongside him. Briand was the top assist-maker in Ligue 1 last year, which should provide LÃÂ³pez with plenty of ammunition.
ToulouseÃ¢ÂÂs AndrÃÂ©-Pierre Gignac will also be a challenger, but only if fit while BordeauxÃ¢ÂÂs Fernando Cavenaghi will benefit from more starts now that Marouane Chamakh has left the Stade Chaban-Delmas.
Saint-ÃÂtienneÃ¢ÂÂs Boubacar Sanogo is an outside bet after a year of adjustment, as is AuxerreÃ¢ÂÂs new target man Anthony Le Tallec, who has matured a great deal since his time with Liverpool.
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