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 FranceÃ¢ÂÂs 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.
Ã¢ÂÂI am sick of hearing that what happened with the French team has repercussions on Le Championnat,Ã¢ÂÂ Marseille striker Mamadou Niang said last week. Ã¢ÂÂThe majority of the ringleaders play abroad. Ligue 1 mustnÃ¢ÂÂt pay.Ã¢ÂÂ The French Connection isnÃ¢ÂÂt alone in sharing MamadÃ¢ÂÂs views, so here goes with this blogÃ¢ÂÂs 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 FranceÃ¢ÂÂs Michel Platini-inspired standards of good housekeeping. The big three loosened their purse strings to the effect that ÃÂ£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 ÃÂ£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 ÃÂ£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 Ã¢ÂÂnever be able to digestÃ¢ÂÂ 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: Ã¢ÂÂWe donÃ¢ÂÂt 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
Marseille boss Didier Deschamps agreed, albeit his take was slightly more eloquent, if not mildly evocative of the Old PortÃ¢ÂÂs most famous son, Eric Cantona. Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂm not going to go fishing for whales if all IÃ¢ÂÂm going to catch is sardines,Ã¢ÂÂ he grinned.
When asked to elaborate on why OM canÃ¢ÂÂt afford to break the bank following their league and cup double, Deschamps told France Football: Ã¢ÂÂWhen 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: Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs fine to be in the Champions League Final, but economically, itÃ¢ÂÂs better to lose.
In prestige, you gain nothing more by winning it. On the contrary, on a financial level it puts you in difficultyÃ¢ÂÂ. 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.Ã¢ÂÂ
MarseilleÃ¢ÂÂs one signing this summer is OsasunaÃ¢ÂÂs CÃÂ©sar 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 MarseilleÃ¢ÂÂs centre, but the ÃÂ£6m fee, which would be payable in just one installment, proved too much, at least for now. Likewise, Toulouse have resisted DeschampsÃ¢ÂÂ overtures for their Marseille-supporting striker AndrÃÂ©-Pierre Gignac, in part because former club Lorient are entitled to 20 per cent of the transfer fee, hence the clubÃ¢ÂÂs valuation being ÃÂ£15 million rather than the slightly more manageable ÃÂ£13 million.
And if that werenÃ¢ÂÂt aggravation enough, Ligue 1Ã¢ÂÂs top scorer last season, Mamadou Niang also revealed on Wednesday that he would like to leave Marseille for Turkish club FenerbahÃÂ§e, although Jean-Claude Dassier, the clubÃ¢ÂÂs president, insists that the idea of him leaving just Ã¢ÂÂisnÃ¢ÂÂt seriousÃ¢ÂÂ.
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, heÃ¢ÂÂll 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 itÃ¢ÂÂs anything but a foregone conclusion: Ã¢ÂÂIts doable but complicated,Ã¢ÂÂ he said. Ã¢ÂÂMarseille have a solid squadÃ¢ÂÂ¦ When you are the chaser, the dynamic of going looking for the title unites. When you are the chased, itÃ¢ÂÂs a different dynamic.Ã¢ÂÂ
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 hasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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, LyonÃ¢ÂÂs only recruit this summer is Jimmy Briand, the creative if injury prone attacking all-rounder who cost ÃÂ£5.4m from Rennes. His partnership with last seasonÃ¢ÂÂs Player of the Year, Argentine striker Lisandro Ã¢ÂÂLischaÃ¢ÂÂ LÃÂ³pez, is causing trepidation throughout LÃ¢ÂÂHexagone.
Briand was the leading assist-maker in Ligue 1 last year, but that doesnÃ¢ÂÂt address OLÃ¢ÂÂs need for a centre-back following Jean-Alain BoumsongÃ¢ÂÂs somewhat reluctant move to Greek side Panathinaikos. Although Claude Puel has spoken of his confidence in January signing Dejan Lovren, the prospect of JÃÂ©rÃÂ©my Toulalan starting in that position after several successful cameos last season has naturally increased after Puel said: Ã¢ÂÂHis versatility is a luxury and a privilege.Ã¢ÂÂ Keep your eyes peeled on Saturday when OL entertain Monaco.
LyonÃ¢ÂÂs 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 everybodyÃ¢ÂÂs 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. Ã¢ÂÂOf course, we must challenge for the title, but what do you want me to say? We want to win, we want to win!Ã¢ÂÂ Puel shouted in exasperation during an interview with LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe.
Marseille legend ÃÂric Di Meco poured salt in that wound on Wednesday when he said: Ã¢ÂÂThere is great pressure on Puel, itÃ¢ÂÂs evident. If he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt win the title this year, we have a right to ask questions of him.Ã¢ÂÂ
Over in Bordeaux, the fans are getting used to life after Blanc, although watching the vultures circle around their star players certainly hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been easy. One of the pillars of BlancÃ¢ÂÂs 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 BordeauxÃ¢ÂÂs only signing of the summer so far at a cost of just ÃÂ£900,000.
And while a podium finish remains very much the party line, a title challenge shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 seasonÃ¢ÂÂs psychological collapse, which was in part due to fixture congestion and the uncertainty surrounding BlancÃ¢ÂÂs future. Until February, they were a dominant force in France and the talk of Europe. Ã¢ÂÂWe have witnessed the end of a cycle,Ã¢ÂÂ said MichaÃÂ«l Ciani, the teamÃ¢ÂÂs centre-back.
Ã¢ÂÂThe change of coach can do us good mentally. There is a thirst for revenge. We managed to win with this team and weÃ¢ÂÂll win again. Bordeaux are a great club and the objective is that of being in the Champions League.Ã¢ÂÂ 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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