Ligue 1 preview: Can Monaco topple PSG?

French champions PSG remain strong favourites to retain the championship, which kicks off on Friday, but they have a new big spending chalenger who could shake things up. Monaco, who have splashed the cash this summer, will hope to push the Paris club hard.

Ligue 1 preview: Can Monaco topple PSG?
Will PSG retain their crown or can big spending Monaco steal it from them? Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

The new Ligue 1 season gets underway on Friday after a summer dominated by behind-the-scenes turbulence at champions Paris Saint-Germain and the return of Monaco as a major force.

After winning their third league title in May, PSG saw coach Carlo Ancelotti leave for Real Madrid before influential sporting director Leonardo stood down after being banned for 14 months for pushing a referee.

Having missed out on numerous higher-profile names to replace Ancelotti, including Fabio Capello and Andre Villas-Boas, the capital club settled for former Bordeaux and France coach Laurent Blanc.

"Laurent Blanc is the best choice for us. He was one of our priorities," said PSG's Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, convincing few in the process.

However, Blanc has won Ligue 1 before, with Bordeaux in 2009, so he has the credentials to get the best out of a squad that has been further strengthened by the summer signings of Lucas Digne, Marquinhos and Edinson Cavani for a combined total of 114 million euros (US$152m).

Uruguay star Cavani, the top scorer in Serie A last season with Napoli, cost 64 million euros, a fee that broke the French transfer record set just weeks previously by Monaco's signing of Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid for €60 million.

The presence of Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack combined with Thiago Silva in defence means PSG are the favourites to retain the title but Monaco, without the distraction of European football, will hope to push them hard.

The principality club are back in the top flight as Ligue 2 champions, and the backing of Russian billionaire owner Dimitri Rybolovlev has allowed them to spend almost 150 million euros on the likes of Falcao, Porto duo James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho, Eric Abidal and Jeremy Toulalan.

Falcao is the big draw though, having netted more than 50 goals in La Liga in the last two seasons with Atletico Madrid.

"With Falcao, we will start every game a goal up already," says Monaco coach Claudio Ranieri. That may be exaggerated though, and the principality club were due to begin the season with a two-point deduction after a series of incidents at the end of a game last season.

The combined budget of PSG and Monaco amounts to almost two-thirds of that of the rest of Ligue 1 combined, and the gap in financial power means it is hard to see anyone else competing for the title, but Marseille could be dangerous outsiders.

OM are back in the Champions League and have invested intelligently this summer, with winger Dimitri Payet, outstanding last season for Lille, their major recruit.

"There will always be clubs capable of upsetting the odds. Paris and Monaco have made extraordinary signings, but we will start the season level with the rest," says Marseille coach Elie Baup.

The outlook is a little less positive at Lyon, where president Jean-Michel Aulas has been busy trying to slash his wage bill, and Remi Garde's side must return to the Champions League group stage to boost the atmosphere around the Stade de Gerland.

Elsewhere, having lost Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Borussia Dortmund, League Cup holders Saint-Etienne will do well to repeat last season's success, while Nice, who move into a new 35,000-seat stadium next month, have their work cut out to finish in the top five again.

Lille are rebuilding under new coach Rene Girard, who has been replaced at Montpellier by Jean Fernandez, while Philippe Montanier is aiming to revive Rennes after doing a fine job in Spain with Real Sociedad.

Meanwhile, Ajaccio have handed former Italy striker Fabrizio Ravanelli the chance to prove himself in a dugout. The Corsicans will be delighted just to stay up, as will the division's other newly-promoted clubs, eight-time champions Nantes and Guingamp.

Guingamp host Marseille in their opening game on Sunday, but the first match sees the last two champions clash at the Stade de la Mosson, with Montpellier hosting PSG.

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OPINION: Mbappé’s title, but PSG need to breathe new life into Qatari project

After being the star of France's 2018 World Cup triumph, Kylian Mbappé has been the standout player for Paris Saint-Germain in a Ligue 1 title-winning campaign that has been slightly marred by the manner in which they limped over the line.

OPINION: Mbappé's title, but PSG need to breathe new life into Qatari project
Photos AFP

PSG finally wrapped up the title on Sunday after second-placed Lille failed to beat Toulouse, having not won any of their previous three games when the opportunity to confirm a sixth French crown in seven seasons was there.

The Qatari-owned club can still make it a domestic double, with the French Cup final to come against Rennes next weekend, yet this will not be remembered as a vintage year.

While Neymar once again went missing due to injury at the crucial point, Edinson Cavani has struggled with fitness too, and coach Thomas Tuchel has regularly lashed out at the lack of depth in his squad.

The 5-1 capitulation at Lille a week ago was the worst league result for PSG since Qatar Sports Investments bought the club in 2011, and the first time they had let in five in a league game since 2000.

A record-breaking 14-match winning run with which they started the season now seems like a long time ago, the latest Champions League failure clouding Tuchel's first campaign in charge.

Mbappé, at least, has been a constant, revelling in his status as a World Cup winner and hardly ever being rested. He only turned 20 in December, but has now won three Ligue 1 titles in a row.

Mbappé has 36 goals in 40 games this season, with 30 in the league. And, frighteningly, his team-mate Daniel Alves told RMC recently that “he doesn't realise how good he is, he can go much further”.

He is also not used to losing, and may have upset some of his teammates with his assessment of last week's defeat at Lille. “We played like beginners,” he said.

Hollow ring

To be fair, they have usually been exceptional domestically. However, the problem is that as long as they keep failing in the Champions League, domestic success for a club backed by a Gulf state will continue to ring hollow.

The title has effectively been in the bag for some time, but their season has been winding down ever since their exit against Manchester United in the last 16.

That, combined with being knocked out in the League Cup quarter-finals, means Tuchel in his first season has actually done worse than Unai Emery, his unloved predecessor.

Paris Saint-Germain coach Thomas Tuchel has actually done worse than his predecessor, Unai Emery
However, according to sports daily L'Equipe, Tuchel has agreed to extend his contract to 2021. Thoughts have already turned to the future, with new signings needed at the Parc des Princes.

The costly Neymar experiment cannot be said to have succeeded until he stays fit for the games that matter, and there will always be speculation about his future.

“We have a contract, we're not even halfway through that contract,” Neymar's father pointed out to RMC Sport.

Time for a clear-out? 

Mbappé is the one man they really cannot afford to lose, but is it time for a clear-out elsewhere?

Some of the excitement of the early part of the decade has gone, replaced with a staleness. The days of Thiago Silva, Edinson Cavani and Marco Verratti are maybe ending.

Youri Djorkaeff, a World Cup winner for France and a PSG star in the 1990s, offers a frank assessment, suggesting real change is needed higher up.

“If you're not great in every compartment, from the bus driver to the girls who clean the shirts, you will go nowhere,” he told Ligue 1 Podcast, 'Le Beau Jeu'.

“Paris Saint-Germain, after many years without success, have to rebuild everything, restart from scratch, because the foundations are not good. You cannot expect to one day win the Champions League without these foundations.”

The Qatar project needs a breath of fresh air, and all eyes will be on president Nasser al-Khelaifi and sporting director Antero Henrique.

UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules remain a problem, though, with PSG said to have a hole of around 100 million euros and the need to present a balanced budget by the end of June. The next few months will be interesting.

By Andy Scott/AFP