Ligue 1 preview: Big spending glory hunters

After the fiasco in South Africa brought a great deal of shame on a nation that had - at least until Raymond Domenech - been so very proud of its national team, France is now ready to shed any notion of self-loathing and finally move on.

Laurent Blanc will name his first squad since taking charge of Les Bleus on Thursday, excluding the 23 players who stained France’s honour so scandalously at the World Cup. But the new broom sweeping the last two months of bitter recrimination definitively under the carpet is the start of an exciting new season in Ligue 1.

“I am sick of hearing that what happened with the French team has repercussions on Le Championnat,” Marseille striker Mamadou Niang said last week.  “The majority of the ringleaders play abroad. Ligue 1 mustn’t pay.”  The French Connection isn’t alone in sharing Mamad’s views, so here goes with this blog’s inaugural season preview part one.

The Glory Hunters

This time last year, Marseille, Lyon and Bordeaux were engaged in a rather unprecedented summer spending spree, especially by France’s Michel Platini-inspired standards of good housekeeping. The big three loosened their purse strings to the effect that £128 million was invested in new players, a truly staggering figure, the like of which had never been seen before.  

To put that splurge into even greater perspective, Bordeaux spent about £1 million more than the then Premier League champions Manchester United, Marseille somehow outdid Chelsea and Arsenal combined while Lyon broke records by writing a cheque from their savings account for £64 million. It must be all the perfume they sell.

To borrow a phrase from Real Madrid, Ligue 1 had officially gone Galactique. Flash-forward a year and the goal posts have narrowed again. In fact, the credit has well and truly been crunched, which makes for a slightly more level playing field, giving other teams a chance to close the gap.

After admitting that he would ‘never be able to digest’ the manner in which Bordeaux threw away a 10-point lead at the top of Ligue 1 only to finish sixth last season, Jean-Louis Triaud, their president, said: “We don’t have any money. We built a team and a budget to play in the Champions league and we wasted the opportunity. We have to accept it.” 

Marseille boss Didier Deschamps agreed, albeit his take was slightly more eloquent, if not mildly evocative of the Old Port’s most famous son, Eric Cantona. “I’m not going to go fishing for whales if all I’m going to catch is sardines,” he grinned.

When asked to elaborate on why OM can’t afford to break the bank following their league and cup double, Deschamps told France Football: “When you win titles, you must pay the players bonuses and they cost a lot of money. A great director at one of the clubs I once played for, told me: ‘It’s fine to be in the Champions League Final, but economically, it’s better to lose.

In prestige, you gain nothing more by winning it. On the contrary, on a financial level it puts you in difficulty’. What he means by that is finishing in first place while evidently beautiful, also costs you dearly. Paradoxically, it narrows the margins to reinforce afterwards.”

Marseille’s one signing this summer is Osasuna’s César Azpilicueta, the Spain Under-21 captain who has looked lively at full-back in pre-season at the expense of Laurent Bonnart, who left on a free transfer.

Clearly confident of having upgraded in that position, Deschamps has been frustrated in his attempts to reinforce in attack and midfield where he believes OM need to make a jump in class if they are to progress further in the Champions League.

Bordeaux captain Alou Diarra was his No 1 choice to anchor Marseille’s centre, but the £6m fee, which would be payable in just one installment, proved too much, at least for now. Likewise, Toulouse have resisted Deschamps’ overtures for their Marseille-supporting striker André-Pierre Gignac, in part because former club Lorient are entitled to 20 per cent of the transfer fee, hence the club’s valuation being £15 million rather than the slightly more manageable £13 million.

And if that weren’t aggravation enough, Ligue 1’s top scorer last season, Mamadou Niang also revealed on Wednesday that he would like to leave Marseille for Turkish club Fenerbahçe, although Jean-Claude Dassier, the club’s president, insists that the idea of him leaving just ‘isn’t serious’.

To make matters even worse, another dressing room leader, influential centre-back Souleymane Diawara is out for four to six weeks after tearing a muscle in a friendly against Valencia. Needless to say, he’ll miss the opener against Caen on Saturday.

So can OM genuinely expect to retain their title? Alain Perrin, the former Portsmouth and Lyon boss, believes it’s anything but a foregone conclusion: “Its doable but complicated,” he said. “Marseille have a solid squad… When you are the chaser, the dynamic of going looking for the title unites. When you are the chased, it’s a different dynamic.”

Lyon are once again doing the chasing, which is something they are still having difficultly getting used to over at the Gerland. Budget constraints have been touched upon, but that hasn’t done anything to stop Jean-Michel Aulas and Bernard Lacombe from talking up an ambitious bid for Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff.

As of today, though, Lyon’s only recruit this summer is Jimmy Briand, the creative if injury prone attacking all-rounder who cost £5.4m from Rennes. His partnership with last season’s Player of the Year, Argentine striker Lisandro ‘Lischa’ López, is causing trepidation throughout L’Hexagone.

Briand was the leading assist-maker in Ligue 1 last year, but that doesn’t address OL’s need for a centre-back following Jean-Alain Boumsong’s somewhat reluctant move to Greek side Panathinaikos. Although Claude Puel has spoken of his confidence in January signing Dejan Lovren, the prospect of Jérémy Toulalan starting in that position after several successful cameos last season has naturally increased after Puel said: “His versatility is a luxury and a privilege.” Keep your eyes peeled on Saturday when OL entertain Monaco.

Lyon’s priority this season is getting back to winning the league while Marseille, who will obviously try to retain their title and open a cycle of dominance, have also earmarked progress in the Champions League rather than the Champions Trophy, which incidentally they won last week on penalties against PSG.

The question on everybody’s lips is can Puel win his first title at Lyon? After all, he was the only Lyon coach not to do so in the last decade. “Of course, we must challenge for the title, but what do you want me to say? We want to win, we want to win!” Puel shouted in exasperation during an interview with L’Équipe.

Marseille legend Éric Di Meco poured salt in that wound on Wednesday when he said: “There is great pressure on Puel, it’s evident. If he doesn’t win the title this year, we have a right to ask questions of him.”

Over in Bordeaux, the fans are getting used to life after Blanc, although watching the vultures circle around their star players certainly hasn’t been easy. One of the pillars of Blanc’s successful reign at the club, Moroccan striker Marouane Chamakh, has already taken his heading abilities elsewhere. But the core remains under new boss Jean Tigana, whose suitability for the top job at the Stade Chaban-Delmas was scrutinised in this blog two months ago.    

A replacement for Chamakh has yet to be found, making it more than likely that Bordeaux will start their campaign against Montpellier with Yoann Gouffran partnering Fernando Cavanaghi up front. Vujadin Savic, a 20-year-old centre-back from Red Star Belgrade, is Bordeaux’s only signing of the summer so far at a cost of just £900,000.

And while a podium finish remains very much the party line, a title challenge shouldn’t be ruled out given the loss of just one major protagonist and the retention of a group of players who won three major domestic titles only a year ago.

A lot will depend on how Bordeaux get over last season’s psychological collapse, which was in part due to fixture congestion and the uncertainty surrounding Blanc’s future. Until February, they were a dominant force in France and the talk of Europe. “We have witnessed the end of a cycle,” said Michaël Ciani, the team’s centre-back.

“The change of coach can do us good mentally. There is a thirst for revenge. We managed to win with this team and we’ll win again. Bordeaux are a great club and the objective is that of being in the Champions League.” Whether they can achieve that goal remains to be seen - The French Connection will preview the rest of Ligue 1 tomorrow.

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