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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back- Ligue 1 Preview 2010/2011

French football has been surrounded by controversy for far too long now. It is hard to remember a time when the headlines were being written for the right reasons. Before considering what lies ahead, it is important to understand how Football in France has capitulated over the last 12 months.

Who could forget the controversy surrounding Thierry Henry’s assist in the Stade de France last November? Certainly not the Irish. The former Barcelona and Arsenal strikers near chest past to his old team mate, William Gallas meant that France qualified for the 2010 World Cup Finals at the expense of the Irish, no thanks to an appalling decision. There were calls for the game to be replayed and Henry to be suspended. This was the start of a slippery slope for the French Football Federation.

A few months later, further scandal struck the national team when several players, including Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich, were accused of hiring an underage prostitute. At the same time, back in France, PSG fans had lynched one of their own supporters. Not the best preparation for a World Cup. Incidentally, France crashed out in the group stages following player strikes and the adorable Anelka being sent home. Domenech was hung out to dry and former Inter defender, Laurent Blanc, stepped in and immediately suspended the World Cup squad from his first games in charge.

All this makes for grim reading. However on the field, 2009/10 was one of the most exciting domestic campaigns across Europe. With only 3 months of the season remaining, there were six clubs vying for the title, not something that is likely to happen in the Premiership. Promoted Montpellier pushed hard for the crown but faded over the final furlongs, nonetheless they finished a remarkable fifth. The financial muscle of Marseille came through strongest, with their first title since 1993, and Didier Deschamps pricked the ears of Europe’s top clubs by leading them to this.

Lyon, Auxerre and Lille all pushed Marseille close last time around and undoubtedly this will be a similar set of circumstances in 2010/11. Lyon had to deal with Govou’s off the field exploits and perhaps this was a distraction for Claude Puels’ men, as they failed to fire themselves to the title with the expensive purchase of Argentinean Lopez. Lille had no such trouble, being the league’s top marksmen, with 72 goals. Further down the table, previous seasons champions, Bordeaux, had a torrid season, finishing sixth, however in a reversal of fortunes Monaco climbed the table to eighth. The league lost Le Mans, Boulogne and Grenoble.

This season, the title is equally as open. Marseille look as though they could retain the title although their success has brought about an all too familiar problem for any French club. With the spotlight firmly placed upon them towards the closing stages of last season, Europe’s big clubs will now be looking to pick off the top talent. Ligue 1 has for too long been a feeder division for Europe’s elite. To date, Marseille have managed to hold on to what they had and have added youth to the mix too, which no doubt will be of benefit during this year’s European campaign. This could be a distraction and think second or third could be more likely with the weight of expectation firmly on them this time around. No longer are Marseille the Ligue 1 nearly men with Deschamps at the helm, so the key will be holding onto the former Chelsea midfielder.

Over at the Stade de Gerland, Lyon will be kicking themselves following last season’s stuttering campaign. The prize was there for the taking and with their current dry spell; Lyon missed out on a perfect opportunity for some serious silverware. Briand has arrived from Rennes and Lloris, Pjanic, Gourcuff and Lopez will be carrying the supporters’ hopes this term. With the strength of Lyon’s starting eleven, it is hard to look past them as Champions for this season and also to progress from an average Group B in the Champions League (Benfica, Hapoel, Schalke).

Bordeaux look good for a third placed spot despite the loss of Blanc to the National team and Chamakh to Arsenal. They have replaced the numerous departures with youth, with the likes of Ben Khalfallah, Maazou and most notably French U21 International Modeste. Former Fulham boss Jean Tigana has the experience to lead Bordeaux to a strong finish and continue to establish themselves one of the forces to be reckoned with in Ligue 1.

The unlucky fourth spot will go to Lille once again, with plenty of firepower to keep them just outside the Champions League places. The gung-ho approach means that Lille often shoot themselves in the foot but are by far the most exciting team in the league and expect more fireworks in the Europa League.

The best of the rest is likely to be Auxerre, who have the pedigree and a strong squad but are lacking a match winner like Gourcuff. Anthony Le Tallec has been snapped up from Le Mans, who Liverpool fans will be familiar with. Perhaps a surprise selection for sixth place is Monaco, with a strong eighth place last time out, the attraction of the French Riviera is proving decisive once again. With the likes of Mbokani, Nene and Traore, Monaco could squeeze into the Europa League with a strong season or a good cup run.

PSG are a strong bet for another cup this year and could possibly better the seventh place predicted here. Having kept hold of Sessegnon, Hoarau, Kezman and Giuly and the addition of Tiene, the capital could see more silverware this season whether it is domestically or in Europe. Kombouare is building a strong, youthful squad and if Europe’s elite can be kept at bay, PSG could be one to watch next season.

Elsewhere, don’t expect any heroics from the promoted sides. Montpellier’s superb season last term was, unfortunately for the neutral, a one off and expect them to finish just below mid table. Brest, Arles and Caen will all be candidates for relegation alongside St Etienne, Sochaux and Nancy. The rest, including Toulouse, Nice, Lens and Valenciennes, will all fight for mid table obscurity.

For one of the most underrated leagues in the world and one of the most exciting, if the coming season is a patch on last terms then the neutral is in for a treat. For a league to continually produce stars such as Ribery, Benzema and Drogba, it can’t be half bad. Perhaps the problem is when players move to foreign shores. Before they get too big for their boots, there are no problems, ego’s or lawsuits, just incredibly entertaining football.

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