Surprise packages and golden boots

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?'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 year’s most entertaining team, Rudi GarciaV’s 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.

“If we reach the same level of play as last year, it will already be good,” he said. “There are two or three teams who are on another level. It depends on us. If Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux aren’t as good, we can challenge them. However, if they are 100 per cent, it will be beyond us.”

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 France’s top scorers. “Last year, we fought to break records in terms of goals scored and points gained, and you can’t break records every year,” 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 “the moment for me to leave” amid reported interest from Liverpool. But the club’s president Michel Seydoux slammed the door shut, albeit in accordance with his views on French philosophy and Feng Shui.

“Gervinho wonders about himself, and we wonder about our future. These are great existential questions,” Seydoux said. “Everyone tells me that there are exceptional offers for him, but my telephone mustn’t be working. I am very Zen.”

Perhaps the biggest boost to Lille’s 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. “I feel that the most important thing for me is to keep learning and to acquire experience,” he said. “Leaving for a big club only to sit on the bench doesn’t really motivate me.”

The Belgian playmaker has the potential to be the star of this season.  In fact, Franck Sauzée, the Marseille legend believes this could really be Hazard’s year. “What a shame Eden can’t play for France,” he cried.

Who will be the surprise package?

It’s unlikely any of the newly promoted teams will match Montpellier’s exploits last season when they came up from Ligue 2 and finished fifth. René Girard is hoping for a repeat of that success, although his desire to do well in Europe may derail their campaign. “We fought to have the right to play in Europe and for this reason we will not take the competition lightly,” he said. “We know that Europe is dangerous for a club like ours, but that mustn’t be an excuse.”

Christian Gourcuff’s Lorient appear the more likely to spring a surprise after last year’s progress-making seventh place finish in Ligue 1 even though Les Merlus have since lost key players like Laurent Koscielny and Marama Vahirua.

It’s easy to see why Arsène Wenger has developed a soft spot for the Brittany-based outfit. Gourcuff’s nine recruits this summer, one of which includes Arsenal youngster Francis Coquelin, have an average age of just 20. Koscielny’s replacement Bruno Ecuele Manga already promises much after two years with Angers.   

Manga's defending is far from comic (clever, huh...?)

Lorient’s 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 doesn’t lend itself to optimism either. So why should it be any different this time around? Antoine Kombouaré has made some ambitious signings this summer such as Nenê from Monaco and Mathieu Bodmer from Lyon, which make PSG’s midfield one of the best in Ligue 1 what with Claude Makélélé putting off retirement for another year and Stépahene Sessègnon moving back to his preferred position on the right flank.

Mevlüt Erding and Guillaume Hoarau aren’t exactly a bad pair of strikers either, giving PSG the firepower to cause a stir in Ligue 1. Kombouaré’s 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, Péguy Luyindula and Jérémy Clément 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 1’s 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 L’Équipe: “I would like to be sought after. But it hasn’t 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 wouldn’t be bothered. I will only leave Marseille for something exciting.”

If that interview was a come-and-get me plea, it definitely worked as the L’Équipe-reading Turks over at ‘exciting’ Fenerbahçe made a €6 million bid for him just a few days later. “Fenerbahçe are a very big club, very popular in Turkey… I am square with Marseille,” he said. “I have given the best of myself. My soul. My heart.”

Despite Marseille President Jean-Claude Dassier calling the move “out of the question” - come as it does just a matter of days before the season opener against Caen - it’s certainly never easy to keep a player against his will. What’s more, Niang’s reputation as an attacker rather than an out-an-out goalscorer means that even if he were to stay, there’s 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. “He is a true goalscorer, spontaneous with a trick as well,” 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 Loïc Fery went back on his promise to let him leave after two years at the Stade du Moustoir. 

An £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 Loïc Rémy, the 23-year-old Nice forward who has attracted interest from Liverpool. Rémy hit the net 14 times last season often in the clutch when his side depended on him, although it’s still unclear whether he’ll 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. 

Lyon’s Lisandro López is the French Connection’s 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 López with plenty of ammunition.

Toulouse’s André-Pierre Gignac will also be a challenger, but only if fit while Bordeaux’s Fernando Cavenaghi will benefit from more starts now that Marouane Chamakh has left the Stade Chaban-Delmas.

Saint-Étienne’s Boubacar Sanogo is an outside bet after a year of adjustment, as is Auxerre’s new target man Anthony Le Tallec, who has matured a great deal since his time with Liverpool.

Part One: Big Spending Glory Hunters

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