Berbatov and Cabaye may have to bide time, as Monaco host PSG in 'Le Cashique'
When PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi commented halfway into his first season post-billion dollar takeover that it would be a 'failure' if PSG didn't win the league, it would be fair to say he misjudged the situation. Having sacked club legend Antoine Kombouare just days before the Christmas of the 2011/12 season and replaced him with Carlo Ancelotti, al-Khelaifi's words only put further pressure on PSG, and they crumbled.
With an entire annual budget of less than the €42 million PSG paid for one player (Javier Pastore), Montpellier took the title against all odds, in an unbelievable fairytale the likes of which we may not see again in an age of multimillion pound commercial deals and €55m per year wages (Zlatan Ibrahimovic's reported salary before tax).
Back then, Ligue 1 was one of Europe's most competitive leagues, as borne out by Montpellier's first ever title. Over a five-year period, Ligue 1 saw five different champions and during this time, rather than a need for Bugatti-owning billionaire backers, building a successful side was not beyond the humble staples of a shrewd transfer policy, intelligent squad building and good coaching.
Things have moved on a lot since those days. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's signing changed French football's landscape, and his professionalism, class and sheer will to win carried PSG to the title. Over a quarter of a billion euros worth of spending has seen the Parisians emerge as the outstanding force in French football, as shown when they went the first 21 games of this season unbeaten.
Nowadays, however, PSG aren't the only show in town. Monaco's promotion to Ligue 1 last season, after their own Russian-led takeover in 2011, means we now have two giants fighting for their slice of the gateau. Ligue 1 has rapidly morphed into a duopoly, and already the pair are fighting for the title.
"It’s really good [for the league]. It’s really good because it hasn’t been the case for so long in France. We’ve been struggling with the quality."
This weekend, the two meet, as Monaco host PSG in what some have dubbed 'Le Cashique'. Heading into the game, PSG are five points ahead of Claudio Ranieri's side, with Monaco themselves eight points clear of third-placed Lille. It's a two-horse race in this town, and Sunday's game will go some way towards determining whether PSG will retain their crown.
From an English perspective - the match will be televised on BT Sport - focus will be on two players who left the Premier League in January to join either side: Yohan Cabaye and Dimitar Berbatov.
Berbatov left his job skulking casually around the terrains of South West London in a relegation battle at Fulham to join Monaco, while PSG paid £19 million to prise prized asset Cabaye away from Tyneside, where the player enjoyed cult status. Both players could make their full debuts this weekend.
The big question, though, is where will the two players fit in?
A star at Newcastle, Cabaye now faces the challenge of making the starting XI at a club with one of the best midfield trios in Europe - Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti, the latter two of whom are two of the top five passers in the Champions League this season, with Motta outdoing even grandmaster Xavi for completed passes.
Meanwhile, nobody at Fulham really appeared too bothered as Berbatov strolled out of the Craven Cottage exit door, and the Bulgarian has a job on his hands to stand in for Radamel Falcao, a man whose tigerish aggression and brooding intensity is the very antithesis of Berbatov's languid, I'll-do-it-this-afternoon playing style.
BT Sport analyst David Ginola, who won the title with PSG in 1993/94, says he didn't expect Cabaye to move back to Paris, but welcomed it as a sign of Ligue 1's growing allure.
"I think the signing was really interesting," Ginola told FourFourTwo. "I was quite surprised. It was not that much in terms of money – it could have been more than what PSG paid. But the way he played at Newcastle was just fantastic, so I think he’s going to add something to the PSG squad. His quality in the middle of the park is quite strong already and I think he will add something else."
"It’s really good for the league - we’ve been struggling with the quality and most of the players were leaving to play abroad because of a lack of quality, but now we’ve got Paris who are buying a lot of players. I even saw a report saying that they want to make an offer for [Manchester United starlet] Adnan Januzaj in the summer transfer window. When you’ve got that money, you can afford anything."
Like those of us scratching our heads at quite where the pair will fit into their respective teams, and for how long in the case of Berbatov, whose loan deal runs until the summer, Ginola is less sure.
"I think it will be complicated for Cabaye to begin with because Verratti, Matuidi and Thiago Motta are regulars in midfield. With this three in midfield Laurent Blanc seems to have the perfect combination for Paris to win games, and that’s probably why Yohan hasn’t yet started any games since he signed for the club. But I’m pretty sure he’s going to have opportunities to play in the near future."
"I think PSG signed Yohan because he is eligible to play in the Champions League as well, so Cabaye is a massive plus for Blanc in terms of the way he’s going to manage his squad. He will be able to play some games with some players and rest players at different times because they play so many different competitions."
"I saw a report saying PSG want to make an offer for Adnan Januzaj in the summer. When you’ve got the money you can afford anything."
Berbatov said leaving Fulham was 'an easy choice', but it had seemed he was destined to remain in London, with Arsenal and former club Tottenham Hotspur both heavily linked with his signature. However, it was Monaco who took him in, and Ginola feels this next few months will be something of a trial period, during which time his new manager will decide if the Bulgarian fits the bill.
"Falcao's injury was a massive loss because he was very influential in terms of the way Monaco played," says Ginola, who played in the Premier League for Newcastle, Tottenham, Aston Villa and Everton in a seven-year spell between 1995 and 2002.
"Up front he was the main target – even if he was surrounded by young talent he had a massive impact on the way Monaco were playing. So Berbatov will fit in right at the front trying to score goals for the club because they really need someone who can put the ball in the back of the net, and Berbatov can do that."
"Thinking about a long-term contract, I don’t know. I think they will wait until Falcao has recovered from his injury and then decide what will be best for the club. It's too soon to think about it - for now the priority for Monaco is to at least finish second and qualify for the Champions League next year. I think this is their main target. Can they challenge PSG for the title? I don’t know. I doubt it. But finishing second is a priority."
Valere Germain scored for Monaco in Falcao's absence last weekend, in a 2-2 draw at Lorient, but he is the most likely player to drop out of the team to make way for Berbatov, given his strike partner Emmanuel Riviere has 9 goals from 13 league starts. Monaco v PSG is not just a clash between Ligue 1's newest heavyweights, it's a chance for Cabaye and Berbatov to give their new managers a selection headache.
Watch live coverage of Monaco v PSG on BT Sport 2 from 8pm on Sunday February 9. Build-up to the game on the European Football Show, which covers the game across the continent, starts at 6:45pm on BT Sport 1.